I’m hiding in the living room watching soccer on my iPad when Harry walks in dressed in a black ninja costume, plastic sword in hand. He looks for me underneath the end tables, inside the fireplace, and beside the couch.
“Daddy, where are you?”
Crouching behind a faux leather recliner no one in my family sits in, I breathe as quietly as possible. I clench every muscle.
Harry yells out my name, elongating both the first and second syllables. “Daaaaa-dddddy!”
My heart thumps. When I was a kid and anxiety threatened to overwhelm me, I would recite state capitals in alphabetical order: Montgomery, Alabama; Juneau, Alaska; Phoenix, Arizona. When that trick no longer did the trick, I switched to washing my hands 96 times a day. Then I switched to trimming the carpet in our living room with a pair scissors, taking great care with each individual carpet fiber.
Much later, I discovered alcohol and then marijuana, a drug that, for a time, I thought of as an old friend, one who could quiet my mind long enough for me to stop driving over the same stretch of highway 13 times in a row or rearranging my wallet, my keys, and my inhaler on the nightstand until I burst into tears because the items were never perfectly aligned.
Now, after I very nearly ruined my marriage, I take special medication and read everything I can get my hands on concerning how to cope with obsessive compulsive disorder. For example, Edmund J. Bourne, the author of “The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, Fifth Edition,” suggests you “find an alternative, positive obsession.” So, at 38, I obsess about soccer in lieu of my son, a precocious four-year old who is used to me playing with him almost every hour of the day.
I hold my breath.
Harry screams like a banshee and then stomps into the dining room.
Alone again, I glance down at my iPad and refocus my attention on the soccer match between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, two top clubs in the prestigious English Premier League. I’ve already watched this game from beginning to end twice, so I know that Tottenham, the team that I arbitrarily decided to obsess over, loses 2-0 even though they retained possession of the ball 58 precent of the game and took 14 shots on goal, four of them on target.
During my first viewing of the match, I took extensive notes. Total number of fouls committed: 27. Corner kicks taken: 11. Yellow cards given: 5. I didn’t just jot down important statistics, I also wrote down detailed observations concerning Tottenham’s offensive and defensive strategies as well as how both could be improved. I wrote down rambling musings on the different coaching strategies employed; on the effects, both negative and positive, of the dreary weather in London on game day; of the betting odds. I did all of that, and yet, several days later and with my son desperate for my attention, I still feel compelled to watch every single play.
Harry yells my name once, twice, three times. I hear him kick something in the dining room, and then say, “I’m a dumb kid!”
Removing my earbuds, I peer around the corner of my hiding spot. My son is sitting Indian-style underneath the dining room table, repeating “I’m a dumb kid” over and over and over again. Lately, he’s been saying “I’m a dumb kid” a lot, and I feel directly responsible.
Since I was a child, there’s been a voice inside my head that says things like: I’m neurotic, I’m no good, something is really wrong with me. Bourne calls this “anxious self-talk,” which is “typically irrational but almost always sounds like the truth.”
My son is far from dumb. He can write most of his letters. He puts together Lego sets with minimal assistance. He can tell you what fossil fuels are (“dead dinosaurs that you put in your car”), and how all the dinosaurs became extinct (“a huge asteroid hit the Earth and killed them”).
In a study published in Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience, researchers discovered that the higher the level of worry in patients with generalized anxiety disorder, the higher the intelligence. I think about this as my son continues to berate himself.
“Harry, don’t say that, please. You’re not dumb,” I tell him from behind the recliner.
“Where are you, Daddy? I can’t see you.”
I watch my child, who begins telling his sword a complicated story involving a green ninja named Eric (the boy’s favorite uncle is named Eric), a one-eyed monster, and a pit of lava.
“I’m Ninja Eric and I’ll hit the monster and throw him in the lava and he’ll die because good guys kill the bad guys and the good guys win and I’m a good guy.” He makes an explosion sound with his mouth, sending spittle flying onto the floor. “You’re in the lava now, monster! It’s so hot! You’re gonna die!”
Just like that, I forget about soccer, my so-called positive obsession. My brain shifts from the pulled hamstring of Harry Kane, Tottenham’s leading goal scorer, to Harry Huckleberry Everhart, my only son.
In “The Anxiety Book,” Jonathan Davidson, M.D., writes, “When you suffer from chronic anxiety, your internal police department, both biological and psychological, responds to false alarms every day, sometimes on an hourly basis.” Hiding behind the recliner, I can almost hear sirens over the sound of my son telling his macabre story.
I engage in a lighting round of What If?, a game my central nervous system plays from time to time with or without my consent. What if Harry, like his father, becomes obsessed with death to the point where he finds it difficult to breathe and nearly impossible to do normal things such as go to school, make friends, or hold down a job?
What if Harry is never able to go back to school because instead of peacefully resolving conflicts with his peers he continues to yell, kick, hit, and throw things?
What if Harry ends up paralyzed by anxiety and turns to drugs and alcohol like his father once did?
What if Harry ends up drinking and smoking and snorting not because his peers are doing it, or because he’s craving a buzz or thinks it’s cool, but because he just wants – no, needs – to feel normal, to stop feeling jealous of every single other human being on this planet, all of whom seem to pass Algebra and visit the zoo and go out on dates without hyperventilating or sweating uncontrollably?
I open my mouth to say something. Nothing comes out. I try to move but can’t. My eyes water, and, stupidly, I look down at my iPad. The game is approaching the 36th minute, which is when Shkodran Mustafi, one of Arsenal’s defensive players, scores a goal with his head. Having seen the replay nine times, I know that Mustafi is off-sides whenever he scores the goal, but the sideline referee doesn’t call it.
Five minutes ago, I would’ve cursed at the screen, fantasized about doing something wildly inappropriate to the referee’s house. But now, as I watch my son strike one of the chairs with his sword and call out, “Die,” I don’t give a damn about soccer. I give a damn about my son. I put my head in my hands and try to take some deep breaths.
“I found you!”
I open my eyes, and Harry slices the air with his plastic sword, the harmless blade missing my head by mere inches. “Daddy, why are you crying? Is it because your soccer team lost? Is that why you’re crying?”
I touch my son’s cheek. With his floppy brown hair, Bambi eyes, and smooth, olive complexion, he is an extremely attractive child. “Looks like his mother,” I often tell strangers who comment on his adorableness while we’re in the grocery store, “and thank God!”
“No,” I say, “it’s not that my soccer team lost.”
He frowns, pushes my hand away from his face. “Are you sad that you had to quit your job and take care of me? Because I was a dumb kid at 4K and kept being bad?”
My heart rate increases. I also suffer from atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart beat that, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, affects approximately two percent of people under the age of 65.
I don’t know what to do or what to say. Should I show him the 277 letters I’ve written to him, each one numbered, dated, and addressed to Harry Huckleberry, each one containing purple expressions of fatherly love alongside detailed descriptions of him and all the cute things he’s done? Or should I show him the list of positive self-talk statements I wrote down and keep in my wallet? Maybe I should read some of them aloud, so he would know that I am not a perfect father, but I love my son more than anything else and I strive to raise him the best way I know how. As he looks at me, I have no idea what to do.
Then I recall something from page 426 of “The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook.”
“Patience,” Bourne writes, “means allowing things to unfold in their own natural time.” As I look into my son’s beautiful brown eyes, that’s what I decide to do: be patient.
“Harry,” I say, “from now on, whenever you say, ‘I’m a dumb kid,’ I’m going to give you an example of something cool I’ve seen you do. Got it?”
A mischievous grin appears on his face. “I’m a dumb kid,” he says, barely containing a laugh.
I walk into his bedroom and come back with an intricate airplane made of Lego pieces.
“You made this fighter jet for your ninjas last week,” I say. “You got a little frustrated putting the pieces in place, but you stuck with it and I’m proud of you for that. You’re a smart kid.”
His cheeks redden a bit, and then he swipes his sword at my hand, knocking the ninja airplane to the ground.
“Let’s play ninjas, Daddy!”
“I’m ready,” I say and stand up.
There was a time when I was ashamed of my chronic anxiety, even though 18 percent of the adult population suffers from it, according to Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
There was a time when I would never have revealed to anyone how many therapists I’ve tried (five), or how many times I’ve worked through the exercises in “The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook” (seven), or how many times I’ve read and taken notes on “The Anxiety Book” (nine).
There was a time when I would’ve been extremely reluctant to reveal that I used to have daily panic attacks, and that every night I’d ask God to please not let me wake up in the morning, please just let me die.
There was a time when I would’ve been ashamed to confess that I take 10 mg of Buspar twice a day.
Fortunately, that time has past. Now that I’m a father, I no longer feel ashamed of my anxiety. I feel responsible. Perhaps it’s time I replaced soccer with a new positive obsession: sharing my story with others.