A Family Inheritance

Anxiety runs in my family.  I inherited mine from my father.

My mother often told the story of when my father first began his teaching career.  Every morning before work he would vomit from nerves.  Eventually he got this down to every Monday, and then when he became more confident at his job, he stopped.  Every time my brother and I were told this story, we would laugh, including my mother.  We didn’t understand.

He couldn’t stand being late.  When we would travel, he’d pack days ahead of time.  When going to the airport, we would have to arrive hours ahead of schedule, or he would get upset, often yelling at us.  His fear of being late carried over to other events when promptness was not called for – for example when going for an outing, he’d announce to the family what time we would “need” to leave, only to blow up when we weren’t ready a half an hour before the scheduled time.

His anxiety took the form of hypochondria.  If he got a headache or a slight fever, he’d worry about it as if he had some strange or daunting illness, asking my mother repeatedly to feel his forehead or listen to his heartbeat.  She’d roll her eyes and say, “You just have the flu for God’s sake!  You’re not dying!”  But by the look on his face, I could see he was frightened.

At restaurants, much to my family’s chagrin, he’d become agitated, running his hands through his hair repeatedly, waiting for dinner to arrive, long before it could possibly be ready.  He would flag down a server and ask them when our meals would be ready, his voice sounding a little desperate, while the rest of us hid behind our menus.

As he got older, his anxiety increased, along with his controlling behavior.  Once while I was visiting with my partner, his car was in the shop and was supposed to be ready early afternoon, but he got a call informing him that they ran into a snag and the car wouldn’t be ready until much later.  He exploded and berated the receptionist on the other end who was only relaying the news.  There was really no rational reason for him to be upset, he didn’t need to go anywhere that day, and, if that need changed, my partner and I had a car.

My parents lived about 2 hours from me.  When returning home after visiting them, he would often call my landline long before I would arrive to see if I made it back ok, and when he found out I wasn’t there, he’d become anxious.  I think it was my last visit there before he died, that he called my house three times before I made it home.  It didn’t matter how much my partner tried to reassure him that I was probably just fine, he didn’t calm down until he heard my voice.

It took me a long time to recognize that these behaviors were coming from a place of anxiety, especially when he acted controlling, impatient and angry.  It wasn’t until I began to analyze and compare my own feelings and behavior with his and recognize that they too stemmed from anxiety that I began to understand more fully his experience.  Although I try not to manipulate and control those around me like my father did, there are situations where I have to have things a certain way or I become very anxious.  There is a felt sense of great urgency when anxiety takes over, especially in triggering or stressful situations, and for me that happens most at bedtime.  I have to be in my bedroom at 9 and if my partner begins a conversation at 8:50, I get impatient and irritated with her because of this urgency.  I need to check and re-check to see if the front door is locked, the stove is turned off, and the cats have enough food and water before I turn in, or my stomach goes into knots.

I want to say here; I loved my father very much.  He was much more than his anxiety disorder and I hope the following poem I wrote 3 months before his death demonstrates that.

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