Jedi Mind Tricks of an Anxious Girl

I sit in the dark and hug my knees into my quivering stomach. I had awakened suddenly after a few hours sleep plagued with worry. What if I didn’t cook the chicken properly? What if everyone who was at my dinner party this evening is also waking up and feeling queasy after the dinner I made them?

“It’s okay,” I tell myself, just like when I was eleven. “I’ll just get Helena to take my paper route this morning.”

I focus on this childhood assurance for some time and the urge to be sick ebbs away. My heart rate slows and I no longer feel my skin is on fire. I’m still unsettled, but I am able to go back to bed, those magic words playing in my mind.

*     *     *

It’s been more than twenty-five years since I had the newspaper route, but I still occasionally wake up in the dark hours of the morning, perspiring, panicked, and anxious about nothing—or everything.

Most mornings it was dark and silent when I went out to unsnap the plastic harness that held the newspapers together. I stuffed any inserts and arranged the newspapers in my shoulder bag, and set off to place them in doors, mailbox racks, or other specially requested location.

Though I was plagued with a nervous stomach that could cripple me, I was also plagued with a stronger sense of duty and meticulousness that often proceeded to perpetuate the first affliction. The thought of not being able to do my job threw me into a flurry of maladies.

My neighbor, Helena, was the only other kid I knew willing to be up so early to deliver the paper, should I come down with the flu or AIDS (which was a real fear, since we kids were convinced it was passed by the cootie-touch, which adults never confirmed nor denied), or if I was simply too tired to do the route because I had hardly slept through the night, afraid I wouldn’t get up in time; I knew I could count on Helena.

“Helena will deliver the papers if I need her to,” I thought.

In reality, I only used Helena twice. But the knowledge that she would be there was all I needed.

*     *     *

When I was eight, I spent almost half of Empire Strikes Back in the cinema bathrooms. My mother stood outside the stall door alternately cooing over me and imploring me to hurry up.

“We’re missing the movie!” she kept saying.

The second time we went to see it, I was in the bathroom before the movie even started, anticipating the arrival of Han Solo on the larger-than-life screen. As the child of a single mother, I was in serious, father-deprived-love with Harrison Ford, and this did not bode well for my nervous constitution.

My mother went to the theater a third time to see Empire without me.

By the time Return of the Jedi came out, I was ten and my mother allowed me to skip school to see the first show on the first day of release. We stood in the hours-long line with people dressed in Star Wars apparel and Chewbacca face masks. The line snaked around and around along ropes into the middle of the mall so that I was sure there would be no tickets left once we finally got to the ticket window.

As we waited, my mother tried to get me to promise that we would not be spending the movie in the bathrooms.

Though my stomach writhed in anticipation, I wasn’t too worried. I had garnered some strategies over the intervening years to get through a Harrison Ford movie:

  1. Eat a meal no less and no more than an hour before.
  2. Don’t order popcorn or candy.
  3. Try not to even smell the popcorn.
  4. Recite horse breeds in alphabetical order.

When the Twentieth Century Fox snare drums and trumpets heralded the beginning of the film, I squeezed myself together and ignored the queasy rumblings in my stomach. I focused on reading the opening crawl of words before it went up into outer space. But the butterflies in my belly sank lower and lower.

I stuck my nose in my shirt and recited in my head: “Arabian, Belgian, Clydesdale, Dartmoor…”

The scent of the buttery popcorn could not be ignored. I peeked at my mother to gauge how mad she would be if I said I had to go.

I looked around the darkened theater, trying to find something else to focus on. I was trapped in the middle of a row of people. In the dark. The shadowy light from the opening scene obscuring their faces.

The saccharine smell of soda pop and the tumultuous aroma of buttery popcorn along with the sounds of munching and slurping and crinkling were like a swift descent into the carbonite freeze machine in Empire Strikes Back; the further down I traveled, the more diminished my chance of return.

I imagined vomiting right where I was; it would get all over the seat in front of me, maybe the back of the person’s head. It would spray into people’s popcorn or on their clothes. They would have to turn the lights on; they’d stop the movie. Everyone would look at me.

My face burned from the inside and my stomach roiled with lava. I didn’t warn my mother, I just started past her and over the feet of what seemed an endless number of people to the end of the row.

A minute or so later, my mother came into the restroom after me, cross from the get-go.

“This is the only time I’m coming in here,” she threatened. “I am going to watch this movie, and I am not going to miss it. Now come on! Get it out and let’s go.” Her pragmatism and her annoyance sobered me up enough to leave my retreat.

We stood at the threshold of the darkened theater, watching from the top of the aisle as the carbonite melted away from Han Solo and the bounty hunter was revealed as Princess Leia.

We would go to the theatre numerous times to see Jedi. My mother stopped accompanying me to the bathrooms. I used my strategies for any help they could provide, and those multiple interrupted viewings would eventually amount to my seeing the entire movie.

*     *     *

I recognize the panicked yet drowsy look in my ten-year-old daughter’s eyes. Her cheeks are flushed but she is pale, and her attention is suddenly drawn inward.

Her attacks mainly come at night, but not always (like in Nashville, where we had to go back to our hotel in the middle of a beautiful day and forgo “gourmet” popsicles. Or in Paris, after the police walked by with large rifles clutched to their chests, reminding her there had been a terrorist bombing in the city a couple of weeks before). They come on as she lies in the dark, her mind racing with unspoken and perhaps even unrealized anxieties and fears. Or sometimes they strike while she is asleep, and she is suddenly awake in the black alone of her room.

I am alert to the possibility each night, so when she calls out for me, I am in her room before she has hit the last syllable of mommy. I sit on the edge of her bed. I resist stroking her head or rubbing her back because I know that touch makes it worse; it magnifies every sensation to thrice its size and weight. The same way I don’t ask what she thinks she is anxious about—that can come later. Instead, I share my charlatan methods with her. Distraction from and neglect of what she’s feeling.

“As I remember these moments, I realize how they have made me stronger and more resilient. The memories give me courage to fight the spiraling, dark thoughts–my own or my daughter’s.”

“What did grandpa get you for your birthday?” Though it was more than a month past. “What was the name of that song you were telling me about?”

I get her to talk. To jabber about inane things that take a little thought, but not too much. I need to fill her head with random thoughts. And then, because she probably couldn’t name a single horse breed (failed parenting), we go through dog breeds instead.

“A?” I prompt.

“Airedale.”

“B?”

“Boston terrier,” she answers. “Chihuahua, Doberman… ”

I lay down beside her and now I stroke her forehead as she goes through the alphabet, growing drowsier. We’ve never made it to Yorkshire terrier.

Sometimes, she is freaked out by something specific, like the fear she has developed of cancer, heart disease, or contracted Ebola.

She puts my hand to her cheek, her forehead. “Do I feel warm?” she asks.

She puts my hand over her heart. “Is my heart beating too fast?”

I feel the rhythmic flutter beneath her chest that is as fragile as an eggshell. “No, honey, you’re fine.”

“But what if you can’t feel it? Should we go to the doctor’s just in case?”

“Probably not,” I say. “Most kids your age with heart disease were born with it. You were born healthy as can be.”

“But what if it’s just one of those weird things?”

We talk and we talk in circles. The spot beside my husband grows cold.

*     *     *

During the Ebola outbreak of 2014, nights were particularly rough.

“What if Ebola comes here?” my daughter would ask.

I ignored my own deep-seated panic and tried to reason with her. “It won’t. First of all, we have the best hospitals here. We practice good sanitation. In Africa, some people have to walk for days to get to a hospital. Some people don’t go to hospitals and doctors because they believe in witch doctors and magical cures. They don’t understand how it’s spread, and they don’t use precautions like washing hands or staying away from sick people. It’s very different there. It won’t come here.”

“But someone at school said it was in Cleveland. That’s near us, right?” she asked.

“It’s not in Cleveland,” I said. Ebola got as far as Cleveland! I think. How could they have let that happen? “It was one woman and they caught up with her in time. No one else caught it,” I told my daughter.

But how do we know? They are probably all quarantined until we know for sure. Her whole family could have it; they could have spread it around the whole city by now!

“That’s how vigilant we are in the U.S. No need to worry.”

It could never get to Columbus. Right?? They would start closing schools, make us stay home at even a hint of it.

But it only takes that one stupid mistake for a contagion to spiral out of control. Just like it takes one stupid thought to spiral down the rabbit hole of panic.

When I heard the news earlier that day, I quelled my own anxiety by thinking about that nurse. I bet she doesn’t get panic attacks. I imagined her brave and not one to worry about things that hadn’t yet happened. But she must be terrified now, faced with this most frightening of epidemics. I thought about the treatment she will have to go through. Was she freaking out as they hooked her up to a ventilator? Was she trying not to imagine blood oozing out of her eyes and her organs turning to mush? Was she thinking of her upcoming wedding to distract her from the long needles they stuck her with for dialysis?

What if someone else caught it from her? What if that person travelled just two hours to Central Ohio where we live, visited an aunt here or something… Why did they let her travel after caring for an Ebola patient—that died!? It just takes one little mistake to contract it, and one little mistake to spread it—I’ve seen the movies, I’ve read the books—haven’t they??

“But how did that woman get it? What if she got it just from being on the plane?” my daughter asked, eyes wide.

“Honey, she was a nurse and was exposed to it. But they took care of her right away. See? There’s no way that it could spread here, with the hospitals we have and everyone watching out for it,” I said, talking myself out of the tunnel I’d burrowed in at the same time.

I take perverse comfort in doing this for my daughter. If I weren’t here beside her, I would probably be lying awake in my own bed or walking around the house in the dark, trying to talk myself down or waking my husband so I could speak my fears out loud to him. The sound of my voice, so unruffled and practical, calms me, and my daughter seems none the wiser that her mother is just as terrified as she is.

*     *     *

Helena will take my paper route.

The words don’t always work, but they do often enough. The mantra serves as a distraction, something to take the focus away from me, from the present: how is Helena doing after all these decades? what kind of person did she grow up to be? I get to thinking about all the (mis)adventures I had doing that paper route. I remember how Mr. D. would greet me in the mornings in his too-small gym shorts, and once invited me inside where he proceeded to do sit-ups while I held his feet down. And then there were all the times I had to come up with the money to pay the Dispatch because my customers wouldn’t pay in time and I was too mortified to remind them. And that weirdo that would sometimes follow me through the complex parking lot in his brown Cadillac until I got to the field I cut across, or went up to a house and pretended to knock on the door. There was the angry yellow retriever that bit my hip, but also the handful of strays I acquired along the way.

As I remember these moments, I realize how they have made me stronger and more resilient. The memories give me courage to fight the spiraling, dark thoughts—my own or my daughter’s.

*     *     *

I sit in another darkened theater, this time with other parents also concerned about their children. Our school district is hosting several screenings of a documentary on youth anxiety, apparently a pervasive problem finally being recognized. When I first heard about the screening, I didn’t even check the showtimes; weeknights are busy and I know enough about teen anxiety—I had survived it and currently live with it. But a teacher friend had gone to an earlier mandatory screening. She said it is worth watching, so I check the showtimes and find an evening I can make work with a little tweaking and my husband’s help. If nothing else, I want to support the school district for bringing awareness of the problem to parents and teachers alike.

The young people in the film discuss the ways their anxiety manifests itself, and their stories bring back painful memories of my own that I hadn’t recalled in years and hadn’t recognized as actual symptoms of anxiety. I had the facial tics: rolling my upper lip, stretching my neck, and what I called stretching my eyes. I had the obsessive-compulsive behaviors: I scratched at my scalp, creating tiny scabs and reopening them over and over again; I couldn’t stop myself from clearing my throat or sniffing constantly, though my mom and even a teacher would scream at me in frustration.

I missed so much school because of stomach aches that I was in danger of being held back (stomach aches that miraculously disappeared once my mother—already at work for hours—gave permission for me to stay home). My grades were compromised because I could not speak up in class, could not perform at the chalkboard, and certainly could not do presentations. I had no trouble completing the work, but I was only given partial credit because I would not stand up in front of the class.

No one questioned. No one gave it a name. I just thought I was sickly and dumb, and that’s probably what everyone else thought too. It is only as I sit in this theater that I realize I could have been helped if adults around me were more aware. It saddens me that so much of my youth and, subsequently, my life, was so affected by anxiety.

I’m heartened that the film suggests distraction as a main tool to use for minor anxieties; I haven’t totally damaged my daughter. I also pick up a couple of new strategies suggested by the doctors and therapists featured in the documentary. The next time my daughter wakes up in the night panicked that she has H1N1 or the next strain of flu, I can bring her a bowl of ice cubes to hold. The painful cold will distract her amygdala—those two nuggets in the brain that respond to negative emotions and causes our body’s primitive response to treat them as a threat. And the next time I think I have poisoned my guests, or a deadly outbreak finds its way into our country, I can snap my fingers back and forth until my body temperature regulates, my heart rate slows, my breaths deepen, and the fog clears from my brain.

If nothing else, I’ll still have Helena.

Autumn Shah lives with her husband and two school-aged children in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. She writes her memoir and fiction in the wee hours of the morning before getting out in the world as a middle school library assistant. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Anomaly Literary Journal, and Adelaide Literary Magazine. She currently blogs for Write or Die Tribe.