I was an anxious child. I’m convinced that my father had a serious anxiety/depression disorder, which I undoubtedly inherited. From early on, I had nervous ticks, anxiety attacks, learning problems, and psychosomatic stomach problems. I was also a bed wetter and a chronic worrier. I obsessively worried about everything that could possibly go wrong in any situation. The world seemed dark and scary to me. I often felt overwhelmed, beyond my ability to cope.
When I was 40, medication became available that helped me conquer my inner demons. Decades before, my mother decided to train me out of my worry addiction. She used behavior modification techniques that she learned about in her training as a psychologist. I owe her a tremendous debt for the effort she put into reconditioning me.
My mother stopped me whenever I started ‘awfulizing’, a great made up word that means seeing the dark side of any situation and making it worse. “Don’t bleed until you’re cut” she would say. She reminded me that I would have plenty of time to worry, be upset and even get hysterical if and when the bad thing actually happened.
“Why waste time now agonizing about something that might never happen?” She asked that question over and over and over.
I saw the logic in what she said. But initially, I couldn’t stop my mind from anticipating problems. My mother was relentless. Whenever I started to worry about the future, my mother stopped and redirected me. This often happened several times every day. Eventually, the Pavlovian conditioning began to work.
I was still an anxious person, but by my teen years, my anxiety acquired a veneer of optimism. I worried, often excessively, but only about real things in my life, like upcoming papers and tests. I was often paralyzed by my anxiety. But I stopped being anxious about things that might happen or could go wrong. I topped assuming the worst possible thing that could happen, would happen.
Since my mother trained me out of my pessimism and worrying, I’ve prided myself in being rather easy-going. I always assume that I’ll be able to drive after the snowstorm — until I try and fail (or it’s really bad out). I assume medical tests will come out normal or not too bad — until they don’t. I’m an optimist now. The glass is half full and I believe things will turn out okay until it’s proven otherwise.
The problem has been for many, many years, there were legitimate things that kept me worrying much of the time. Things like mental illness in my immediate family. Financial problems. A cheating husband. The thing is, I bled over the real crises, rather than over the imagined, possible ones which might be lurking out there for me.
A few days before she died, my mother asked me what I felt I ‘got’ from having her as a mother. She wanted a final report card on her role as mother. I told her that, above all else, I was grateful to her for training me out of my destructive worrying and pessimism. She saved me from years of self-inflicted anguish. Watching my dad, I saw how painful and unrewarding life could be if you always ‘bleed before you’re cut.’ I am relieved that I didn’t have to experience that every day, as he did.
My mother was surprised but very pleased. I also told her how she gave me my sense of fun, humor and silliness as well as my love of theater and my appreciation for beautiful things, good food, good friends and good conversation. The upbeat, happy and enthusiastic parts of my personality were all thanks to her. I gave her credit for much of what is best in me.
She died happy, feeling appreciated. I would be happy with that for my legacy as a mother.