Anxious Voices

by Suzanne Selfors

I had the fortune and misfortune of being born into a family that overflows with mental illness.

I say fortune because my family has provided me with some of the most colorful characters I’ve ever met. They’ve raised me, shaped me, influenced and inspired me.

I say misfortune because I don’t know anyone who would choose mental illness. I don’t know anyone who would say, “Hey, I’d sure like to be depressed and anxious, throw in some paranoia and addiction, and I’m good to go.”

I was an anxious child. But I didn’t know that word. Depression and anxiety weren’t common terms in the 1960s. And they certainly weren’t words that were taught to children. Armed now with hindsight and life experience, I can see how anxiety was always there. My mom said I was “tightly wound,” and I remember that whenever I stayed up too late or did too many things, I would break down by vomiting. While I didn’t have panic attacks, there were a few episodes when everyone’s voices would suddenly speed up and the world seemed to be going too fast. My heart would race. I’d find a quiet corner and sit until it passed.

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What? Me Worry?

Like many editors I have a predilection for order, efficiency, and systems. That’s the polite way of putting it. Significant others and family members have at times used descriptors such as anal retentive or obsessive. Point taken. Whatever your word choice, these qualities have served me well in my profession. But beneath these types of endearing quirks (again, the polite label) often lurks a root cause: anxiety.

I come by my anxiety in the most honest way possible—genetics. Go up the family tree a branch or two and you’ll find hospitalizations, shock therapy, alcoholism, panic attacks, and lots of list-making in really tiny handwriting. Fortunately, all that got watered down by the time my X chromosomes paired up, but I would still say that I was an anxious child. I clearly remember standing in my grandmother’s yard at the age of maybe four, pensively noting that life used to be so much easier. Ah, to be a world-weary preschooler.

Over time I learned effective coping techniques, and now my anxiety is simply a part of me that minimally affects my quality of life. But as a young child, I had no words for what I felt, and I had no basis for comparison. I had the sense that other people didn’t feel like I did, and that made me wonder whether something was wrong with me. Mostly I just had no idea what to do with my feelings and lived with a degree of discomfort on a daily basis. I compensated in other ways—I liked routine, I avoided risks and changes, and I became an overachiever and people-pleaser.

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