By the time my children were old enough to avoid my watchful eye, I was already worn from battle against a master of war. My opponent invaded me, planting counterfeit cognitions and exploiting vulnerabilities bequeathed to me from generations past.
They detonated when triggered and, upon implosion, destroyed joy and disintegrated achievements. I've surrendered to attritional attacks levied by generalized anxiety and succumbed to blitzkrieg strikes of panic. Buried in the rubble were a million lost opportunities and fractured memories.
When I learned about clinical anxiety, how it is both inherited and learned, I vowed to win the war before it carried over into my children’s lives.
Whenever I read about people who transformed their anxiety into productivity, I felt shamed by my pain and wondered why it only crippled me. Its propaganda convinced me my written words were empty, and my spoken words clumsy and unworthy of listeners.
In adolescence, anxiety kept me off sports teams and away from dances. But no matter how severe the battles of my youth, they paled in comparison to the brutal assaults I experienced as a father. Although I have shifted the tide of battle, anxiety spits its spoils in my face when I think of the joy of which I've been robbed.
Catastrophic thoughts plagued me upon my children’s birth, so I helicoptered from their infancy on. I shadowed every move – withheld toys I feared would lodge in their throats and gave two-minute baths so they never drowned. I was years away from diagnosis and not yet medicated; ripe conditions for anxiety to declare war.
Irrational thoughts whispered to me during routine days, but they screamed during trips to the Jersey shore where, as a child, I garnered memories roaming beaches and boardwalk planks. I desired something similar for my kids. Shore days should be ice cream stained chins and screams of delight echoed from whirlwind rides. I hoped to experience those delights again through my children, but was foiled by suspicions of poison ice cream and visions of mangled bodies on rides.
Trapped between hope and fear, I acquiesced when my kids asked to go, knowing they deserved to not be restricted by my ghastly thoughts. They shouted names of arcade games and treats while I fought to keep the dread down. Feeling certain of horrors to come and wondering from which direction they would strike, I envisioned an 18-wheeler two lanes over hitting us and exploding on impact. As our car lay on its back in my mind, I emerged from black smoke through a shattered window and left behind the charred remains of my children.
Had I opened my mouth to thank our toll collector, the lump in my throat would have fallen to the road. My kids were aware I always drove the speed limit, but as they whined, they could never know I drove slower to ensure a less powerful impact from an inevitable crash.
When we arrived at the amusement park, Emily and Aedan sprinted toward a food stand whose vendor, I was certain, would serve them old stale pretzels with jagged edges that would lacerate the insides of their throats. I suggested, instead, they eat the fruit I packed and drank bottled water. Of course, they protested and added hamburgers to their list wish, while I grimaced at the thought of tainted beef. I longed to see their smiles as they chewed, but turned away.
Once I saw they had not been poisoned, I zeroed in on the size of their bites and adequacy of their chewing, convinced they would choke. While they sipped sodas, I watched calories barnacle to their bellies and diagnosed them with childhood obesity. After the last gulp, they pined for rides as I insisted they should hold off for fear they would vomit if spun at high speed. Anxiety buried joy under miles of sand and snickered while I dug for it.
As my children raced toward ticket booths, I approached with caution. I handed over money and suggested they purchase their tickets, rationalizing that it gave them a sense of independence, but knowing I was cleansing my hands of a bloody affair. They charged the tilt-a-whirl or roller-coaster as I crept behind and tried to imagined their bliss as I braced myself for cataclysm.
When they boarded and buckled in, I burned the images of their sticky faces into my memory, believing I would never see them alive again. I asked if they were positive they wanted to go through with it, and they answered with eye rolls in unison.
When the death trap buckles clicked and the machine commenced its twists and turns, I slammed my eyes shut as Emily is ejected toward the ocean depths. I saw Aedan dangling by a snagged foot, his head smashing against the cars around him, his blood painting the clouds. I avert my eyes toward the beach, but the ocean is bloodied, too, and Emily is an apparition on the water with a Teddy clutched close where I should be.
Shaking my head, I honed in on the ecstatic screams of safe children who were not mine, stared at seniors licking lemon ice. When the ride stopped, my kids hopped off and ran toward me with smiles wrapped around their faces. I waited for one of them to puke from motion sickness. I endured this through many rides and multiple trips because happy childhood memories are a birthright.
When it was time to leave at sundown, I felt exhausted without ever having exerted myself physically. But as I listened to their backseat recounts of the day, I sensed victory was mine.
Soon after I tucked them in their beds and thanked them for the day they'd given me, I hit the Xanax and Zinfandel to foster accord in my mind. Sailing to sleep, I glued Emily and Aedan's smiling faces in my mental scrapbook and enjoyed the day in retrospect. I had found a way to shepherd my thoughts carefully and not let them run frenzied throughout the amusement park – a strategy to ensure my children saw a safe and secure world through me.
Anxiety has cost me a chunk of joy as a parent, but I’ve been compensated by my children’s quiet minds. I have shown them what a safe world looks like and refused to allow my war to rage on through them. I may have teetered on the brink on many occasions, but reason won out in the end. There is enough authentic chaos around us. No need to scar our kids with imaginary terrors.
I could not have received greater confirmation of victory than when my daughter flew to Paris on a school trip and my son joined his high school football team. They have surpassed what I accomplished in adolescence, and will continue to do so in adulthood.
I, meanwhile, can revel in my victory over a vanquished enemy.
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