I could care less

I’m worried that I’m not worrying as much as I used to.

Worry can be a great impetus to get up off the couch and do something with your life. If you’re constantly contemplating all the bad things that could be happening to you, there’s a survival instinct that kicks in with a plan to anticipate and address these feared outcomes. Anxiety used to be a driving force in my career and other ambitions I had for myself, but lately I’ve noticed a certain amount of mellowing that would be a cause for concern, if only I could make the effort.

I’ve always defended my pursuit of anxiety as simply a way of thinking through problems before they happen, always in search of a solution to troubles that surely were just around the corner. I’m being proactive, I’d argue, in considering what it would mean for me and my family to have the earth impacted by a rogue asteroid. Maybe we could hide under our car, or check into a nice hotel, or eat at an expensive restaurant and charge it to that high-interest credit card I’m always afraid to use.

One of my earliest memories was as a first-grader walking home from school, shortly after learning about the dangers of being outside in a thunderstorm. One loud boom and I was running for my life in panic, certain that I was about to experience the business end of a million volts of electricity. I survived that afternoon, only to find myself five summers later worrying for three months about my upcoming move from elementary to middle school. That graduation meant changing classes every hour (I’d surely get lost), a more challenging curriculum (I’d never master algebra), and taking a shower after gym (I’d be naked).

When classes finally started in September, I somehow found a way to survive, and came to the end of that first week with a sense of relief I chose to perceive as accomplishment. That’s one of the hidden advantages to building up concerns in your mind into giant fearsome beasts; if you manage to make it through, there’s a sense that you’ve been fantastically constructive, regardless of the fact that you finished last in the 600-yard run not only because you were fat, but as a strategy to avoid taking a shower in the presence of your classmates.

Throughout high school and college, I used the ever-declining state of world affairs (Vietnam, the Cold War, Watergate, Hall and Oates) as a reason to avoid planning for a positive future. This was either a total repudiation of worry or, more likely, adopting it as such an all-consuming lifestyle choice that thoughts about tomorrow could focus on near-term gratification instead. By the time I started my first real full-time job, I was even using worry as an investment strategy, declining to participate in the voluntary contribution retirement plan because we’d all be dead by next Tuesday anyway.

But I was maturing, in a way. I was learning to break down the bigger fears into smaller, manageable chunks of concern. When I found out that I’d need to travel to India on business, for example, I managed to avoid thinking about what an enormous fright the entire three weeks would be and instead looked at the experience as one small adventure after another. First, I’d think about how difficult it might be to find the international counter at the Charlotte airport, then I’d worry if I was indeed in the right line, and only then would I be afraid that my luggage couldn’t be checked all the way through to Mumbai. And so on. To paraphrase Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, the journey of a thousand mile begins with a single step, and a 12,000-mile flight to a steaming, overpopulated, poverty-stricken subcontinent begins by abandoning hope that you’ll ever return. I expected the worst and came very close to getting it.

When I did somehow survive the experience and make it back home, I saw how my negativity about the trip had crystallized my outlook on life. If you thought through events in the near future thoroughly enough, you’d realize how unlikely a positive outcome was going to be. With such a constant expectation of imminent disaster, the worst that could happen is exactly what you predicted. You’d always have the satisfaction of being right, even if you also had passed away.

Speaking of physical well-being, it wasn’t until I went for an annual physical a few years later that I finally understood how pointless it was to sweat the small stuff. When the doctor identified a tiny dried spot on my forehead as “something we should look at,” I suddenly had a more appropriate perspective on life. “Great,” I commented, “another thing to worry about.” He immediately responded with the kind of carefully designed treatment plan we’ve come to expect from modern medicine: anxiety medication.

He told me about a class of pharmaceuticals called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRI. It seems we have a chemical in our brains called serotonin, and a selective portion of it is uptaken on a recurring basis. Apparently, we don’t want that. A prescription for citalopram wouldn’t do anything for my forehead spot, but it would make me worry less about it, as well as treat my irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsession-compulsion and lichen simplex chronicus, if I wanted to develop any of those at no additional co-pay. After taking this medicine for a week or two, I seemed to be significantly less anxious, and that moss on my back was almost completely gone.

I’m proud to say that I now have my fears under much better control. Tomorrow, for example, is just the latest test of my new-found coping skills. I’m meeting a plumber to get an estimate on some work I need done at my rental house, and it’s always been a challenge for me, a chronically unhandy individual, to interact with engineer types. But I’ve been studying up in advance on the plumber culture so we might relate better in a man-to-sorta-man relationship. I borrowed a pair of my niece’s low-rise jeans (hope he doesn’t notice the Miley Cyrus decal on the left cheek), I found some NASCAR-branded clothing that seemed appropriate for plumbing (a Dick Trickle t-shirt and a Greg Biffle hat), and I’ve had my right hand replaced with a hook, so I don’t have to shake hands or touch toilet water. I am forcefully taking the situation into my own remaining hand and confronting my fears.

By the way, that dry spot wasn’t head cancer after all. I think the clinical name for the condition was worry wart.


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5 Responses to “I could care less”

  1. particularcircumstances Says:

    Well written. Insightful. I worry and don’t sleep myself, but I worry that without the worry, I won’t be myself.

  2. sandysays1 Says:

    Great reading!

  3. bethsciallo Says:

    Have your wife take a picture of your plumber outfit – PLEASE!

  4. planetross Says:

    Great stuff.
    I had to look up if “Dick Trickle” was a real name: … I have learned something today.

  5. tomachfive Says:

    You got me there, Dave.

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