When I was a kid, my nickname was Worrywart.
I used to say things like Do you think it matters? Is it going to be okay? over and over to anyone who would listen. It didn’t matter what I was talking about—what the it in question was—it just mattered that I was appeased.
I really didn’t care for the truth either. I just wanted to be told it was all going to be okay. And then I didn’t listen. I just kept on worrying and asking the same questions.
I obsessed. I bit my nails down to nothing. I wrote little notes to myself on papers that I would crumple up as soon as I jotted down my secret language on them. I would only write the first letter of every word, so if the sentence was “Am I going to get in trouble for not reading that book for school,” I would write “AIGTGITFNRTBFS.”
It was a language only I understood. And maybe my sister. Years later, I would find little notes with the same secret language that were not in my writing, but in hers, and although I think she must have gotten it from me, this secret language, she claims it was a weird talent she made up all on her own.
I used to use that secret language when I was anorexic to write down all the things I ate.
would be: RCHASW.
I knew exactly what it meant when I read it. Even years later.
It was a craft, a skill, a profession I honed—this worrying business. This secret language.
During the years when I was losing weight rapidly, when I was deep in the throes of anorexia, I would ask people, anyone: Do I look fat? Do I look different than I did last week? Have I gained weight?
And the kicker is that I never ever wanted them to say yes. Never.
I wanted to stay in my secret language land and my land of worrywarts. It was like a kingdom of pain, and, although I hated it, I wanted to stay. I felt safe there with my first letters only of words, my bitten nails, and repetitive thoughts.
It started when I was very young. I remember having a recurring dream that our house was on fire and that I saved everyone but my sister. Never my sister. I was climbing a tree in the dream, and then the dream would end. Each time.
Maybe the worrying started before my dad died. Maybe after. The nickname started after he died, I do recall that, when we moved to California and I would collect soaps and line them up on the shelf in the room I shared with my sister. We had a hamster and bunk beds. At night, I closed my eyes and tried to forget everything about my life before the hamster and bunk beds.
As I got older, the worrying turned into a full time job.
I would sit in the library at NYU for hours, counting my hunger pains and staring at the book on American Literature without reading one sentence, or rather reading the same one sentence over and over for four hours. I would write in my secret language all the things I ate or didn’t eat that day and then obsess over how I would finish my homework when I hadn’t even started, and I had been sitting here for hours. Then I would obsess that I wasted time. Then the sun came up. To do all of this as well as I did was a true art.
To have the world fooled, that I had it together, was a skill unlike any other.
My eyes gleamed over, and under them were soft dark circles, which suggested that I spent the night awake and eating in my sleep, as I often did because I was starving. Anything really. Anything I could get my hands on. Cat food. Muffins. Anything.
To be so good at something took time and practice, and I didn’t have much time for anything else, mind you.
You never forget how to be an artist.
I still obsess. I still turn things over in my mind so much that they lose their meanings and become dog bones so chewed upon that there’s nothing left to do but keep chewing.
I catch myself now. I catch the thread of the thought and rip it before I trip over it and fall down the rabbit hole.
There was the year I was eighteen. I was obsessing on something so much that it ate that year whole. That year disappeared in the way that some years do, and the only way I can reconcile of any of that year is sometimes in a dream or in a photograph. Gone. Annihilated. Poof. Eaten up by worry.
Truly, it’s an art, I tell you. Not everyone could be so good at it.
The thing about worry, the real tricky thing, is this: It begets nothing, nothing but more of it.
It’s addicting, a drug in its own right. You know it’s bad for you and you want to stop, or maybe you don’t, but you can’t. It satisfies some deep craving where you’ve been broken, and nothing else does that, not yet at least, not that you’ve found. So you keep doing it; you keep slipping until you are so far gone that nothing makes sense anymore except your secret language filled with broken letters. That place where you worry is like a safe nest, and even though all the things you obsess over will most likely never happen, nor do you want them to, it somehow feels safer to be in there, in that cracked world where you can spin and spin and never have to look at what is really happening outside of your mind.
Yes, worry is an art. A skill and a commodity. The more you collect it, the more value it will have. Until, eventually, it is all you have. Walls of your worry. Looking back, they will demarcate the eras of your life as if they really happened.
Sure, I still want someone to tell me it will all be okay. My great big fantasy. I like to feel safe, yes.
Sometimes I still obsess, like a parrot with a three-word vocabulary, but, mostly, I catch myself in these moments and open the door to the cage and fly away.
I allow myself my humanness. I astound myself at my own humanness at times, in fact. But I refuse to be swept up in the arms of this clever nonsense. No thanks, I say, I am just passing through.
I would love to hear what you can stop worrying about. Leave a comment.
Jennifer Pastiloff was recently featured on Good Morning America. She is a yoga teacher, writer, and advocate for children with special needs based in L.A. She is also the creator of Manifestation Yoga® and leads retreats and workshops all over the world. Jennifer is currently writing a book and has a popular daily blog called Manifestation Station. Find her on Facebook and Twitter and take one of her yoga classes online at Yogis Anonymous.
Jen will be leading a Manifestation Yoga® weekend retreat at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshires, Massachusetts Feb 1-3, 2013.
*Photo by Peter Blanchard.