By Francie Arenson Dickman
“I’m really nervous about going to camp,” my daughter says as we take out her duffles, preparing to load them with gear for her third season away from home. Unlike my other daughter, who will toss a few t-shirts in her bag as she heads out the door to the bus, Lilly likes to start weeks ahead of departure, allowing herself time to inspect battery supply on flashlights, the expiration date on the sunscreen. It’s a lengthy process, but she is the girl you want to bunk with should life in the Northwoods go south. She has bug spray in case of mosquitos, Benadryl in case the bug spray doesn’t work, bandages in case she scratches the bites, lice deterrent in case of a summer scourge, aloe in case of a burn, Tums in case concern about lice, bites and burns gives her a stomach ache and duct tape because you just never know.
Fair enough, I think to myself, standing next to her in my office where the organizing is taking place. Two months is a long time for even the most well-adjusted eleven-year-old to ship out, so an expression of fear at this point is expected from someone like Lilly. She has anxiety, the kind triggered by fear and a deep-seeded faith in worst case scenarios. This strain, according to my father, is genetic, striking predominantly Jews of Eastern European dissent like Woody Allen and him. Even in the 80s, my father avoided credit cards and the stock market in case of another Depression. As a child, he also avoided school for a time. No one knows why.
He passed the condition down to me. In fact, a few days before Lilly announced she was nervous about camp, I told my husband I was concerned that Lilly hadn’t yet started to worry about leaving for camp. (My husband is only half of Jewish Eastern European dissent, so he worries half as much as I do.) He told me I was crazy; Lilly was probably over it. I scoffed and said, “Just you wait.”
Now, in triumph, I push aside the camping paraphernalia, sit down next to her and prepare a response that exudes supportive nonindulgence, as Gail, my daughter’s therapist has advised. For the anxiety-prone parent, nonindulgence can be a challenge. Lilly says headache, I hear brain tumor. She shows me her reorganized closet, I see OCD. “What specifically or nonspecifically is getting to you?” I ask.
“Well,” she says, as she methodically moves fans and flashlights from one pile on the floor to another after fitting them with fresh juice. “I’m worried about going away, I’m worried a little about the kids in my cabin, but mostly I’m worried because I’m not that worried.”
I laugh, and thinking I am laughing at her rather than with her, she explains further, though I know where she is headed. I, too, as a child used anxiety in appropriate contexts as a tactical offensive measure, preparing my mind like Lilly prepares her duffles, aware of and ready for all the shoes that could possibly drop. I was born a parachute packer. Unfortunately, so was my daughter.
“Worry is the interest you pay on things that never materialize,” my grandmother used to tell me.
But in my mind, worry seemed a cheap price to pay to prevent disaster. Hell, if all I had to do was stew for a few weeks before our annual trek to Florida in order to keep my grandparents from dying while we were staying with them, then bring on the fretting. If my daughter’s upfront anxieties that the summer will be plagued with tornados and mosquitoes will keep such calamities at bay, than worry she will. And if, as she now explains, she’s forgotten to worry about camp because she’s been, god forbid, living in the moment, or worrying about something more imminent like the end of elementary school, then the fault of a lousy summer lies firmly on her small, Eastern European shoulders. I get it. But I don’t tell her so.
I don’t want her to know I buy in because parachute packing is not an easy business. The burden of holding fate in your hands is, aside from entirely egotistical, lonely and exhausting. Which is why I quit. I am too old, I no longer have the energy. If I keep it up, as my husband warns, I may no longer have my health. So, as much as I want to indulge Lilly and validate her coping methods, I’d rather try to save her from herself, and so I hold my tongue.
When I was a child, my mother barely registered my day-to-day comings and goings, let alone my anxious feelings. “Mrs. Miller has breast cancer and Alison says she’s going to die. Are you going to get breast cancer too?”
“Why would I get breast cancer?” my mother would say as she sat and smoked at the kitchen table. “Go play with your brother.” As if he would help my situation. If he was even home, chances were that he was tucked in a ball on his bed tapping his mezuzah against his chest, his own psychotic ritual for calamity prevention, which my mother never noticed because her reach was restricted by the telephone cord to the kitchen.
Nowadays, I’ve noticed parents respond to every twinge of their children’s anxieties with the panic once reserved for typhoid fever. Three-fourths of my kids’ friends not only have been diagnosed with some type of anxiety but have a shrink on staff, a doctor dedicated solely to calming them down. Naturally, my daughter is included in this anxious majority.
The first anxiety doctor that I took my daughter to see when she like my father before her, refused to go to school for reasons never fully understood, was Betsy Blumstein, billed by many as the Dali Lama of the North Shore. Just getting an appointment with her is enough to give even the most laid-back parent palpitations and her method of treatment is no better. She sits the anxious child down in a windowless room next to a poodle the size of the Incredible Hulk and in a tone that could be called anything but supportive, chides the child for allowing the anxiety monster to sit on her shoulder. When we left her office, my daughter said that listening to her was worse than listening to me, which she gets to do for free, and so, we never returned.
We instead found Gail, an old school psychologist who reminds me of my grandmother and who found a way to get Lilly to go back to school, a way for me to talk to Lilly without projecting my own anxieties onto her situation, and for better a worse, a way for her to leave home, first for a month. And now, Lilly says, she’s ready for two.
I, of course, am not. I have been worried since January about how she would fare away from home for so long. I’ve spent many a wee hour making mental lists of the items she might need in case of emergency. Allergy medicine in case the hay fever season runs long. Earplugs in case someone snores. Airborne in case she feels a cold coming on. A string around her wrist to remind her to wear her retainer. Fresh Calamine in case the string gives her a rash. The truth is, I realize as I write her name on her back-up pair of flip-flops, she might not have worried enough to prevent a bad summer, but I have. I’ve packed the parachute for her.
Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.