A Word From My Wife: The Monsters in My Closet

1 Jul

Simone appears to be a carefree kid. She does everything with heedless abandon. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything with heedless abandon, and the only two times I remember being carefree I was drugged with Demerol. According to my mother, when I was a year old, I nervously pulled chunks of hair out of my head. I was born a worrier.

I worried about everything and anything—too much garbage, too many people, pollution, acid rain, being late to school, leaving my backpack at school, not having the right backpack and being made fun of, having a fatal illness, getting lost, getting mugged, having to talk on the phone to a stranger, having a talk in person to a stranger, bugs, being crushed by a tree branch, being abandoned by my parents, being left at school after everyone, even the principal, had gone home, being alone, not being alone—there was no fear too big or too small. I would seek out danger and disaster wherever it may lurk, and I would worry about it.

The only time my mind was quiet was when I was reading. Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew, The Babysitter’s Club, The Chronicles of Narnia, Little House on the Prairie, Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, Agatha Christie—whatever I found in the revolving racks in the young adult section of the library, or at the used book store, or, when I was desperate, on my parents’ shelves. My reading was fast and furious; I never remembered anything. At home, I always had a book in my hands. Everywhere else, places I couldn’t read—school, cars, my friends’ houses—I suffered.

For those too many painful hours when I was forced to sit in a desk and listen to other kids plod through inane read-alouds, or be alone with no book, or, worse yet, interact with other human beings, I developed a perverse but effective method of surviving a constant onslaught of fear and self-doubt. I redirected. Not to a happy place—positive thoughts had no power over my anxieties—but even deeper into the belly of the beast. Whenever I found myself absorbed by a particular worry, when I felt my weak grip on reality slipping, I would leap for solid ground onto a less immediate anxiety.

For example, if I were on the bus stop convinced I was about to be kidnapped, I would worry about  my parents dying in a car crash on the way to work. What were the chances I was going to be kidnapped while my parents were both involved in fatal accidents? I couldn’t help but feel reassured.

This strategy was effective in part because of the sheer number of different things I was worried about at any given time. Here are a few of the many possibilities I feared, on and off, though mostly on, at various points throughout my childhood. In no particular order:

1. That my parents had been replaced by alien shape-shifters: I spent a lot of time looking for subtle signs that my parents were not who they appeared to be, wondering where my real parents were being held prisoner, and thinking of ways I could out the imposters while simultaneously trying to appease the aliens so they wouldn’t realize I was on to them.

2. Dying in my sleep: This fear resulted in an elaborate bedtime ritual in which my parents and I were required to recite the following script at the end of the night. Me: “See you in the morning.” Parent: “Or when I check on you.” Me: “Whichever comes first.” I’m not sure why this was so reassuring. I suppose I didn’t give much thought to the fact that, while checking on me, my parents probably wouldn’t put their ears up to my face to make sure I was still breathing.

3. Insomnia: The fear of dying in my sleep, along with the mundane, nagging anxieties—teachers who would not call on me, boys who did not like me, girls who would not talk to me, etcetera—that built up throughout the day, led to insomnia. My sleeplessness peaked in the sixth grade. My eyes shut tight in the vain hope that I could induce sleep through sheer willpower, I became convinced each night that I was the only soul awake on a vast slumbering continent.

4. Being poisoned by accidental ingestion of a common household item: Once I got some lotion in my mouth. I stared at the bottle in horror, the ingredient list of deadly chemicals followed by the warning: “If swallowed contact Poison Control immediately.” I wondered how long it would take the poison to stop my heart. Relieved that I had survived this brush with death, I became an obsessively thorough and frequent hand-washer, in order to insure that I did not swallow any other poisons.

5. That my parents’ vising friends were Communist spies: I lurked and listened outside of closed doors. I peered into windows. I worried about how I should break the news to my parents.

6. AIDS: At the age of ten I resigned myself to a life of celibacy.

7. War: During the First Gulf War, while many of my classmates donned POW bracelets and dogtogs and sang rousing anti-Saddam propaganda I cowered and had Holocaust nighmares.

8. Witnessing a crime: When I glimpsed something I thought might be suspicious—a glowering man with black gloves, an idling, windowless van—I would make a big show of staring blankly up at the sky, off into the distance, down at my shoes in an effort to broadcast to potential criminals that I was too stupid and unobservant to have noticed the theft and murder they were perpetrating right underneath my nose, that they needn’t bother hunting me down to keep me from testifying. My anxiety quashed whatever bravery I might otherwise have had.

9. Choking: I hated chewy or tough foods I thought were likely to lodge in my throat. This led to default vegetarianism that drove my grandmother and father crazy. “You’ll never grow!” they’d yell.

10. Natural disasters, especially tornadoes: I hated flying kites. I hated waves. I hated when things blew away. I hated any evidence that I was at the mercy of nature.

11. Someone finding my fingernail clippings in the trash and using them to clone me: I would wrap my fingernail clippings in toilet paper before putting them in the trash and keep an eye on the window to make sure no one was watching me.

A few of these worries may or may not have traveled with me into adulthood. A few may or may not have been replaced by arguably even more insane fears. Somewhere between ten and thirty-one I may have learned to laugh at myself once in a while and that, as Robert Frost wrote, has made the difference.

So far Simone shows almost no signs of anxiety at all. In fact, the only times she does appear anxious is when I’m visibly upset. On the few occasions when I’ve cried in front of her, Simone has rushed to my lap and patted my face insistently, her eyes wide and nervous.

Perhaps in an effort to save my daughter from the monsters in her closet, I’ll finally become the person I’ve always dreamed of being—unflappable, easygoing, cool as a cucumber. But then everyone who knows me will be convinced I’ve been replaced by a shape-shifting alien. Or cloned by a fingernail clippings thief. Or brainwashed by a mob boss trying to cover up a crime.

The possibilities are endless.

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One Response to “A Word From My Wife: The Monsters in My Closet”

  1. Matt! July 2, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    Fantastic.
    Sometimes when I get down about the past I just pretend the world was created five minutes ago by a god obsessed with not letting anyone on to the fact that we haven’t been here for eons. That way I didn’t REALLY have to go through any crap to get here. I just get to be.

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