About fourteen years ago, I was in the middle of a phase. Each time I learned about a new natural disaster, I feared it with all my heart. I sat up at night thinking about how if tornadoes pick up something burning, they too begin to flame. Recently there had been several fire-safety presentations in the library. We sat cross-legged on the mauve carpet and listened to a beige, pruny man tell us how imperative it was for our family to develop an Emergency Fire Escape Safety Strategy.
My family never made one. We kept our alarm disconnected so it wouldn’t go off while cooking bacon or burning toast. Sporadically, I remembered this fact and grew tense. With my young thin shoulders all the way up to my ears I tried to make a Personal Emergency Fire Escape Safety Strategy, but I knew my family, when the time came, wouldn’t know my plan, and that was almost worse than no plan at all.
When my parents brought us outside to play, I scanned the sky for funnel clouds. Straining my eyes, where’s the green tint that I read about somewhere, sometime, in some novel read aloud to me before bedtime? Will this strong wind evolve?
Inside, I remembered: if you keep your door shut it’s safer. But I was also too afraid to smash my window in the event of a necessary escape—so I left the door open and hoped I’d smell smoke before things got too dire.
Eventually, this rational fear of deadly weather expanded to the littlest things. Once on a camping trip we were going out looking for water. The sky was grey. “It’s going to storm,” I told my mother. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. I could smell something off, sulphurous, mean. Another fear of mine was being struck by lightning. I’m misusing “was,” here. Being struck by lightning still is a fear of mine, only now I know the statistical probability necessary to talk myself down from that fear. When it did start to rain, and we were huddled in the small, damp tent, my parents made jokes. “Guess this one was right after all.”
I never thought of myself as an anxious person. In school, I avoid all my stress by planning at the beginning of the semester. Everything from 10-page readings to final projects goes into the small navy bluebook with the deep spine crease where I keep every detail of my life. Also every social engagement. Also trips to the gym. Usually, I don’t let myself have spare moments. I fill them with writing, reading for leisure, long walks, tidying, et cetera. I still get upset about the weather, though, mostly because I’m afraid it will ruin my clothing. Once I got a smear of dust on a new pair of black high-heeled ankle boots. I thought about it all day, that little smudge, about a centimeter long, brownish-grey. In the end it ended up being easy to rub off. Now, though, I always check the weather before dressing. The worst is when it gets warm at the end of March and all the months of accumulated snow turn to liquid. I walk so quickly from classroom to library and back again that I splash mud up the backs of my jeans—which I generally try to avoid washing so as to keep the colour’s integrity—in an array of ugly patterns. I wash the jeans. While I put them into the dryer I curse to myself repeatedly.
I don’t really register the moments of intense anxiety as anxiety. It’s the lungs squeezing together or the onset of a headache or sudden moodiness. It’s misinterpreted as excitement for parties, the beginning of classes, a new task at work. I scratch at the patch of chest visible above my shirt collar; during final exams, I pull out my eyebrow hairs or bite my nails while I think.
I need to go to sleep with wet hair. This is part of an elaborate routine which, last month, I related to a close friend over the phone.
“First I pee. Then, I get in the shower. It’s a short shower. I wash my hair every night. After I shower I brush my teeth and then I floss. I wash my face. I moisturize. I pee again. Then I brush my hair and change into pajamas. I climb into bed. I scroll through social media for a while even though everyone says you shouldn’t. Then I pee again. Then I go to sleep.”
“That’s a lot of peeing,” he said.
“Well I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night. Because I might not fall asleep again.”
I drink a lot of water during the day, so waking up to pee is a very real concern. I do this because once when I was planning a trip to the Philippines which I didn’t end up taking (a decision, that, when I think about it, still makes me squirm five years later) an older man, a very experienced traveller, said to me: “It’s really important that during the flight you get up and walk around every so often because if you don’t you can get a blood clot in your leg and if it dislodges, then it can travel to your lungs or your heart or your brain and kill you.” During my later research, I discovered that remaining well-hydrated can reduce the risk of developing a blood clot—which I also learned the name of. Deep vein thrombosis.
My therapist told me to try tensing up every muscle in my body, then letting go.
I’m also tracking the anxiety in the journal now. I can notice things I didn’t before. I can name things anxiety that I thought were normal. I lash out at people when things don’t go according to my schedule. I need to feel needed constantly. I have to maintain high grades, keep my job, fill my time.
After doing this for a few weeks, I realized I had to stop reading the news. This was devastating, as I’d been considering going into politics and I figured that keeping up with current events was important, even vital. But all the articles about climate change made me uncomfortable. I’m often wracked with guilt when I take the long, hot baths which I use to reward myself for eating properly or finishing my reading. I still eat meat, which I hate but can’t stop. When I stare at raw chicken breast, I wonder about the West Coast wildfires and the promise that rising oceans will knock out the internet within fifteen years. This is worrying, mostly because I’m certain I couldn’t survive in the post-apocalyptic landscape. I’m five feet tall, blonde, not thin, and a slow runner with flat feet and a low pain tolerance. I’m too accustomed to modern comforts to adapt to postmodern scarcity.
My therapist told me to breathe in for four, hold for four, and breathe out for eight.
When I realized I probably wasn’t normal, it made genetic sense. My father often teased, “Everyone in my family is crazy.” Several years ago my sister lost too much weight drastically; she was sick. My other sister used to have problems too, but now she’s on medication. I’m not. I’m well-known for being the well-adjusted, responsible daughter. I think it’s because of the planner, the GPA, the life plan, the rigor. Probably not because of the insomnia or the sudden outbursts of tears in the middle of class when I remember I don’t have summer work which I need because if I don’t save any money, then probably I’ll be a failure or my family will poke fun behind my back and be irritated at my need to live rent-free.
Ironically, I really love the rain. Today it rained, and I said to my boss, “I’m dressed for fall. I’m thriving.” Cold weather, especially damp cold, is clean.