MY NEWS OBSESSION – ELLIN CURLEY

I have a very nice life. By most objective standards, I have nothing to complain about. Then why do I walk around with a knot in my stomach and a sense of dread in my heart? The answer is – I read the news. Every day. Somewhat obsessively.

The question is – Why? Why do I subject myself to ongoing angst when I could be living a minimally stressful retirement? The daily workings of the government usually have no effect on my existence. Even a major international crisis rarely intrudes on my day-to-day life. The policies of HUD rarely, if ever interfere with my peaceful existence in the ruralish suburbs of Connecticut.

Dogs playing in my peaceful backyard in the woods

So why can’t I stay away from the major source of anxiety in my life? And why do I feel anxiety about things that will probably have little or no effect on me or my family? Other than masochistic tendencies, I’m not sure about the answer.

I do know that I came from generations of passionately involved women who actively protested the injustices of their day. My grandmother protested against the czar in Russia and my mother marched in favor of labor unions in America. They brought me up to feel connected to the world around me. They made sure I empathized with those less fortunate than me. They made sure I chaffed at injustice and inequality. They made me incapable of turning away from the deprivation and suffering of others.

Early 1900’s protests against the czar in Russia

My mother and grandmother were both activists. They put their money where their mouths were. I’m not like that. I’m an introverted coward. I’m slightly claustrophobic about crowds. I don’t do rallies or marches or protests. But I sit at home and cheer them on and worry. Maybe staying informed is my penitence for not being out on the barricades.

Protests in favor of Unions in the 1930’s and 1940’s

In the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, my grandmother chided me for not being a part of the protests that were taking place at Columbia University, where I was at college. The whole anti-Vietnam war movement started with Mark Rudd and the Columbia SDS chapter.

Their protests made the news. Photos of police on horseback clubbing students at my school were everywhere. The movement that was created there shaped the world for the next few years until the war was finally ended. It also shaped the whole Baby Boomer generation.

1967-1971 protests at Columbia University in NYC

My grandmother said that if the young generation didn’t make a revolution to change things for the better, then who would? I could have easily been a part of my generation’s ‘revolution’. But I wasn’t. It was a good one and I missed out.

My form of political involvement

So today, I read. I can’t stop, even when what I read depresses and scares me. On some level, I believe that being informed is a way of being involved. I also talk to family and friends and try to get them involved with the issues that interest me.

On Facebook, I take comfort in knowing there are so many others out there who also care about what I care about. So, I post and share articles that I think my online ‘friends’ should know about. Some of these people are honest to God activists. At least I can encourage and support them. It wouldn’t satisfy my grandmother, but it’s the best I can do.

LIMERANCE AND TEENAGE OBSESSION – Marilyn Armstrong

One obsession. Once. A long time ago.

I was 16. Freshman college year. One boy, first time “doing it.” I think it was mutual. It certainly went on — against all odds — for about 20 years. It was very innocent in 1963. Less so with each passing year.

It’s funny, after so many years, how the details have disappeared. I remember that it happened, but I don’t remember what it was that was so obsessive, that had me in its clutches.

I only know it was a long time ago when all of me was young, healthy, and in a single piece with no replacement parts.

Obsession today is more like a worry I can’t get away from. Typically — these days it is something I know I need to do but don’t want to. Inevitably it has something to do with money. Everything else I can work through, but money is so inflexible.

1963

I discovered this morning I’d been hacked on another credit card. I didn’t know about it, but I was having trouble using it and it appeared the address on the card was wrong.

How do they do that? How do they manage to change my address and get away with it? I suppose they guessed the 3-digit code. If they have a little program, it can probably run all possible 3-digit codes in a computer’s heartbeat.

Otherwise? People are a part of my life or not. If they bother me or get under my skin, I don’t deal with them.

I’m not sure who I was at 16. Not me. Someone else, inhabiting what was sort of my body – back then.

ESOTERIC OBSESSIONS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I’ve had some random and esoteric obsessions over the years. Only two have stayed with me for decades and are still going strong.

One is the Titanic and anything Titanic related. I saw the movie “A Night To Remember” when I was in elementary school. I then read the book the movie was based on and I was hooked. I continued to read other books that came out over time about the Titanic and her last hours.

Painting of the Titanic going down

I was fascinated by the series of ill-fated coincidences that sealed the ship’s fate. If any one of six or seven things hadn’t happened exactly as they did, the ship might have been saved or avoided the iceberg altogether. I also loved the stories of the people on the ship – from the super rich and famous down to the crew and the steerage passengers.

I passed my Titanic fever onto my daughter, Sarah. We watched the movie “Titanic” together over and over. We frequently flipped through our large Titanic coffee table book with lots of wonderful photos. Sarah has followed all the dives on the Titanic wreck even more than I have. Many of the unanswered technical questions about the sinking have now been answered and Sarah and I share each new revelation with relish.

Photo of the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor

My other long-term obsession is the British royal family. I always loved English history, particularly stories about the Kings and Queens and their families through the centuries. I started following Queen Elizabeth II and her young family when I was a pre teen. Charles is close to my age so I was particularly interested in him and his slightly younger sister, Anne.

When Prince Charles was looking for a wife, my soap opera antennae went into high gear. When he met Lady Diana Spencer, my interest became a real obsession. I read everything I could find about them, but mostly her.

Charles and Diana early in their relationship

The day of Charles and Diana’s 1981 wedding, I woke up at 5 AM so I could watch the entire ceremony live. I had a one year old so I was up anyway. On this day, however, I stayed up. I also called my close friend in London and we watched the wedding together on the phone. I almost ended our friendship when I criticized the new Princess’s wedding dress. I thought it was overdone, too pouffy and unflattering. Most Americans shared my opinion. But most Brits, including my friend, absolutely loved the dress and took offense at any negative comments about it.

The infamous wedding dress

I followed Diana’s marriage closely. I applauded her more modern approach to being a royal, particularly after she became a mom. She wanted to be a hands on parent, which was a huge break with British royal tradition. I cheered her on, along with the rest of the world. I loved the new vibe she brought to the royal family. I also related to her increasingly dysfunctional marriage with a cheating husband. I mourned her tragic, early death.

I continued to read about Diana’s boys after her death, but not as avidly as I had when she was alive. When Kate Middleton came on the scene as Prince William’s love interest, I got my passion back.

William, Kate and their two children

Kate has continued the modernization and humanization of the young royals that Diana started. I am particularly taken with her easy, close and natural relationship with William. I applaud her involved parenting style and appreciate her and William’s accessibility. I follow news of her and enjoy photos of her clothes, as I did with Diana. I admire her style and taste and love most of her wardrobe, possibly even more than Diana’s.

Now I have a new royal couple to read about religiously. Prince Harry has announced his engagement to Meghan Markle, a poised, mature and charming biracial American actress. She seems caring and down to earth. She is already involved in international humanitarian causes on her own. She also has rescue dogs, one of whom has come to live with her and Harry in London.

Harry and Meghan announce their engagement

Meghan will be another breath of fresh air in the still stuffy royal family. She’s had a successful career and lived out on her own in the real world. Americans can relate to her and she can relate to the common man, just like her fellow commoner, Kate Middleton.

I don’t obsess over movie stars or pop stars, like many Americans do. I only know about a few of the ‘celebrities’ who appear in “People Magazine”. But I should have many years ahead of me of happy royal voyeurism following the two English Princes and their growing families.

BEHAVIORAL CONDITIONING – BY ELLIN CURLEY

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.

Me at about six or seven

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.

Me and mom when I was seven or eight

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.

Me at around thirteen

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.

Mom when I was about thirteen

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.

Me and Mom a month or two before she died in 2002

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.

WHAT? ME WORRY?

I gave up worry sometime between getting cancer in both breasts and needing two new heart valves. Worry never did me any good and it probably did me considerable harm. Somehow, I always felt that worrying was like prayer for the non-religious.

In fact, the things I worried didn’t happen. The things I never saw coming all happened. That’s what’s wrong with worry. We worry about what we think we should worry about, but when trouble comes, it is always from a direction we never expected.

I was a moderately healthy young person. I had problems with my spine and had surgery to fix it. It didn’t quite do the job, I just assumed it was fine and went about life like there was no problem. Until that auto accident. The one where the kid with no insurance tee-boned me at an intersection because she just didn’t feel like waiting that extra minute for the light to change. When they dragged me to the hospital and ran x-rays, the guy came out of the lab holding the films. He was ghostly white.

“These are really … well … I’ve never seen anything this bad. It’s just a bunch of tiny, broken shards. You need to see someone. Like … well … can you walk?”

The more than half full cup

I figured he was simply viewing the rubble from the spinal fusion I’d had in 1967. Time had not dealt gently with it and the bone glue — which is actually made up of bone they took from my hip, pounded into paste, drilled out my spine and glued it together using my own bone glue — had broken into a million tiny pieces. Or, as the lab guy said, shards. Me? I wasn’t worried. My back was pretty sore and I hadn’t had an exam on my back since … 1967. It was 1998, so I figured no harm in getting a check-up, right?

I had to find a doctor and after three attempts and finding doctors who didn’t even bother to look at my x-rays before having me in as a patient, I found one. I knew I was probably in a bit of trouble when the lab lady came out with tears in her eyes, looked at me, and said “Oh, I’m SO sorry.”

“So sorry?” That didn’t sound good.

I discovered I was giving up horseback riding. I was also giving up lifting, would be very careful about bending. I didn’t care about the lifting and bending, but the horses? That was hard.

“What if I’m extremely careful?” I asked.

“And what if the horse spooks? One fall and you won’t be getting up again. That’s it. One fall. You’re done.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. So, I sulked. Brooded. Worried. Obsessed. Eventually, I gave up riding, but I cried every time I saw a horse. I got over it, more or less. I worried about my back and about being poor — because we were and are.

I had surgery to get my weight down, to lighten the load on my spine. Except the surgery went horribly wrong and I wound up much sicker. Nearly dead, actually. Just as I was recovering from that (I had no insurance or it wouldn’t haven’t gotten that bad) and after multiple surgeries and hospitalizations, I was beginning to feel pretty good.  That was when I discovered I had cancer in both breasts. Oops.

My mother died of metastasized breast cancer, but she was a lot younger than me, so I figured I’d dodged that bullet. But at least my heart was good, right?

Less than three years later, I was in the hospital needing two new heart valves plus a lot more heart surgery.

I never saw it coming. So all that worry about things that never happened.  The obsessive fretting, anger, inner rage? Pointless and stupid.

While I was trying to recover from the heart surgery, I realized I had nothing left to worry about. Whatever was going to happen, would happen. My worrying about it wasn’t going to change anything, not for good or ill. It would make my family and friends crazy having to listen to me, especially since as we’ve all gotten older, there’s a lot of stuff on our plates. Much of which is pretty bad.

I don’t worry. No matter how awful the news is, I frown, absorb it, forget it. If there was more I could do to fix it, I’d be doing it. Meanwhile, I write. I encourage others to write because that is what I know how to do. I’m not going to be hoisting a placard or marching with protesters.

We are surprisingly poor. I worry about it when I must and don’t think about it the rest of the time. Bad things happen? I get scammed? I get mad … and then I let it go. I do not spend the following months seeking revenge or court judgments. Revenge is worry with murderous intent. I’m not a killer.

Things work out.

Worry made me fat. Worry made my hair fall out. Worry made me a permanent insomniac. It caused me to lose sleep more nights than not. Worry caused me to make some truly stupid choices. Worry quite probably helped my heart self-destruct.

These days, I don’t worry. Not for more than a few minutes at a time.

That I can’t remember anything for more than five minutes probably helps.