My earliest moments of anxiety stem from a kindergarten class in 1990. I was five years old in Mrs. B’s class at Bigelow School. There are so many oddly specific things I can remember from my time there but I haven’t been able to figure out why I remember these moments, these seemingly worthless chunks of data.
We all have them floating around in our heads like flotsam on the shores of a beach. Every so often a memory washed on shore to be discovered by your conscious mind. This is where most people differ. Much like in real life when someone finds an item along the shore; whether it is seaweed, crab, mussel shell, plastic cup lid, or whatever; that person will do one of two things. Some people will pick the item up and inspect it for whatever qualities/flaws it may have, stick it in their pocket, and bring it home to further clutter their room. Some people pick it up just long enough to find its most aerodynamic side and fling it back into the limitless expanse it came from.
I tend to be the person that picks up that beached memory, thoroughly roll it over the fingertips of my mind, notice small grooves and chipped edges, and stuff that memory in my pocket for safe keeping. Sometimes those memories are like beach glass, worn by time and softened to a more palatable event. Sometimes the memories are like a discarded diaper, disgusting from afar and worse upon closer proximity. But no matter what, that item comes home with me and just lingers until I lose it, discard it out of necessity, or forget I ever had it to begin with.
In Mrs. B’s class, I can’t remember how many kids there were. If memory serves, there was anywhere from 5 to 50 kids in this grey room. Or was it blue? I’m not sure. But I definitely remember that there was a kid named Leonardo. I remember him because of his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle name and because one day we were playing a game where the teacher blindfolded us and handed us an object (some basic shape I’m sure) and had us guess it. Leonardo volunteered and as he stood before us blindfolded and waiting for his mystery shape he said “who turned out the lights?” and everyone laughed. Even the teacher chuckled and I remember the distinct feeling of jealousy and envy.
When it was my turn, I can’t remember what shape I was handed but I do remember stealing Leonardo’s joke in an attempt to get the same laughs. I can’t tell you the color of the blindfold or if I even guessed correctly. What I can tell you is that the awkward silence that took the room after my failure to be funny has become my biggest fear. But this wasn’t the earliest moment of anxiety I can remember…I don’t think. I’m not sure if the blindfold episode happened before or after but in terms of poignancy it is fairly high ranking in terms of pattern setting.
As I said, I was in kindergarten, so daily activities were usually involved crayons, glue sticks, and/or paint. On this day, the project involved glue, yarn, and construction paper. The direction was to glue yarn in one direction and then glue yarn on top of it going in a direction perpendicular to the first layer. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t grasp it. I don’t know if I was distracted, over-complicating the idea, or if I was just having a tough day (because toddlers have such tough lives) but I managed to maybe get about 4 pieces of yarn down before having a toddler-sized panic attack. Finally, the teacher offered a reprieve and allowed us to go out for a short recess. Very quickly, I found that I was not included in the group allowed to go outside, beyond the suffocation of failure and sticky yarn. She held me back and told me that I couldn’t go anywhere until I told her what my problem was and until my yarn textile looked less like it happened on accident. I couldn’t put into words why I was having such trouble, and the inability to do that only brought more frustration and anxiety. Once I was red-faced and hyperventilating, she softened and coined a term that would be used for the rest of my childhood and apparently a good portion of my adult life. She said, “Jeff, there’s no reason to have a meltdown.”
I knew she was right, but it didn’t stop them from happening. There are scores of moments just like that first one where I see a task and assume that it is too hard so I make a half-assed effort. When that fails to yield the results I see from others, I figure that it’s because I am: stupid, worthless, an idiot, a waste of time, etc. As I walk along the coastline of memory beach, this yarn textile memory washes ashore and as I pick it up, I see numerous other memories just like it. So I collect them. I drag the whole pile across the sand and soon enough the pile is taller than me. There is no possible way to sort all of them and I can’t just throw them back into the ocean, something has to be done with them. So, I walk some more, carrying a satchel of burned bridges, poor decisions, and useless feelings. A treasure for a melancholy pirate, the jackpot for hitting all sevens on the doubt machine.
I like to think I have gotten better at sorting feelings with medicine and good old fashioned support from an amazing girlfriend and loyal, loving friends and family, most of which I don’t feel I deserve sometimes. But I can definitely still feel that red in my cheeks as the prospect of embarrassment creeps closer on the horizon. It’s this feeling that sends me back to the coastline to find more debris that looks and feels just like it. So, what is the solution? Do I just throw it all back into the ocean? Do I pick through each one and try to find that common thread, the frayed string that, if pulled, could alleviate all of the stress and anxiety over things both petty and important? Or will finding this recurrent theme cause me to realize that no matter what, I will always react this way and that there was nothing I could do nor is there anything that I can do now that will fix it?
What if I just leave it on the shore like a sandcastle and let the tide take it down. A structure that took years to build, and even more to protect from my own need for absolution. Maybe all this time, I have been digging a moat around all of these things because I feel like if I just let the tide roll in, I won’t feel accountable for things that I have done.
I’m sure the beach metaphor is getting a bit tired and repetitive. Maybe I just need to shut down, climb down off the cross I’ve built, and get over things that happened 5, 10, 20 years ago. But how do you block it? The way my mind works, I am assaulted with random memories and thoughts all the time, one leading to another until I have shown myself a kaleidoscope of evidence that I am not nearly the person I should have been, am, or will be. What do you do when every channel has old news that you wish would go away. Well, you shut the damn thing off. You leave the self-imposed interrogation and you try to find a spot where you don’t hear the ocean anymore and the flickering assault of memories become dull and blur until they are like a drive-in movie that you are speeding away from. Then you are left asking…
Who turned out the lights and how can I thank them?