By Nicki Stein
I remember when I told my mom I was going to die.
I was thirteen, and it was summer. We were driving on the highway late at night with the windows rolled down; the car smelled musty and warm. On an expansive stretch of pavement, just past a roadside Pet Cemetery, rows of tiny white crosses blurred together. We traversed that stretch of road so often through out my childhood that I sometimes visit it in my dreams.
“Mommmmm,” I moaned. Lampposts and highway reflectors swayed in the dark.
“Moooommmmmm,” I wailed.
“I’m—GOING—to DIE,” I sobbed with my whole body. I wiped my salty-wet fingers on the car dashboard.
Anxiety and mental illness have long loomed in the background of my family history: My great-grandmother had a penchant for hoarding keepsakes and keeping pristine notes on the date and time she acquired each one in her tiny, immaculate handwriting. Her engagement ring was supposed to go to me when my grandmother died, but my aunt has an intense superstition that the ring brings bad luck, and so it’s been kept in a safety deposit box for the past ten years.
I was always a nervous kid: I never told lies and worried constantly about everything from my friends liking me to getting A’s on all of my report cards. But the dark oil spill in my head began to envelop the rest of my brain with gusto the summer I turned thirteen, like an expanding inkblot on the favorite page of my favorite book. I tried desperately to keep the spill at bay. I did this mostly by distracting myself with games like, If I Don’t Step On Any Cracks In The Sidewalk I Won’t Die (Yet), and the perennial favorite, If I Torture Myself By Imagining The Worst Thing Possible Happening To Me That Means It Might Not Happen. I also slept a lot.
Those games were my meager attempts to momentarily escape from the incontrovertible fact that I was going to die. I knew that I was going to die. Soon. This knowledge was heavy and immutable. Now, I didn’t want to kill myself. My death would come swiftly, from on high. Either there would be an apocalypse-type event where all humans would perish, or a bus would hit me, or I’d suddenly become terminally ill and quickly alight this earth. I believed with my whole heart that one or any combination of these scenarios would play out before my fourteenth birthday.
Soon after the incident in the car, the peak moment of my brain-panic, I started seeing a therapist. She was a nice lady named Marilyn with big arms and a kind smile. She gave me a CD of ocean sounds to listen to before I fell asleep each night.
Ultimately it was not the ocean sounds CD, but the hormonal insanity of my newly adolescent life that ended up snapping me out of that intense brain-loop. My unceasing thoughts of twelve-car-pile-ups and brain aneurisms met their end when eighth grade started and I found other things to worry about, like if Kevin would give me his sweatshirt to wear at recess, and which song lyrics to post in my AIM profile. That year I learned to apply eyeliner, played sweeper on the school soccer team, and sewed a Nirvana patch onto my favorite jean jacket. Eventually I stopped seeing Marilyn, and I thought of the “I’m going to die summer” as a fluke of pre-teen angst, hormones and strange brain chemistry—I assumed I’d put the incident behind me. I never really talked about that intense, certain feeling of doom again once it stopped, and no one acknowledged that my thoughts that summer might have hinted at a semi-regular state of mind I’d be destined to contend with again some day. I didn’t know what had happened to me, and couldn’t imagine that anyone else had ever felt the same way I did; I was just glad that the fog had lifted.
But I’ll tell you something: just this week I thought that my routine sinus infection had morphed into a life threatening clotting disorder. When I blew my nose there was blood on the tissue like, twice. I walked to lunch in the freezing cold sniffing incessantly and imagining a dizzy feeling in my head, a dull pain in my right arm. Later that day I went to a tattoo appointment, and was able to instead focus my attention on my newly raw, needle-poked skin. And for about a month last July, when all of those ALS ice bucket challenges were crowding my newsfeed, I stayed in bed most mornings checking my almost imperceptibly shaking hands, sure that I had been stricken with a fatal nerve disorder. That cycle of symptom checking only ended when I dropped a full keg of beer on my foot and broke my toe: the constantly searing pain serving as a surprisingly welcome distraction. My toenail still hasn’t grown back all the way.
Really, the “I’m going to die summer” was the first concentrated instance of my anxiety bottling up and exploding. Usually those uneasy thoughts just hang around in the background of my subconscious chattering away constantly in a low drone, making weird comments like, “Hey Nicki’s hands are tinged blue from those new jeans she bought, doesn’t that mean she’s about to keel over and die in the mall parking lot?” and, “Oh gosh Nicki, you have a headache on a plane, that must be a sign of a fatal brain aneurism due to the lowered oxygen levels in the plane cabin—enjoy your last few minutes in that flying death-box!”
Often I can find the humor in what these dumb, egomaniacal voices are saying (That sip of beer is not giving you an allergic reaction, Nicki, stop being silly LOL) but the weeks of wide-eyed, constant panic over a thought that’s slipped delicately into a clean, obsession-sized crevice in my day-to-day thoughts, whether it be a blood clot, brain aneurism, allergic reaction, impending heart attack, ovarian cancer, stroke, tumor etc., those insidious voices are more difficult to find the humor in, and they affect my quality of life more than I like to admit.
In my early twenties, when I made the decision to start seeing a therapist again for the first time since the “I’m going to die” summer, I finally got the satisfaction of putting a name to what happened to me that night on the highway, and what’s been happening to me on a smaller scale every since: Generalized Anxiety Disorder with OCD traits. Naming my disorder and being able to talk, write, and laugh about what’s happening to my body when I have anxious thoughts has been a huge and empowering part of dealing with a condition that strikes with random strength, usually when I’m at my weakest.
I’m proud and relieved to finally give thirteen-year-old Nicki the satisfaction of publically airing her death-thoughts in all their weirdly specific, uniquely terrifying glory. I wish I’d had that opportunity as a kid. In my adulthood I’m aware that I’m not alone in my anxiety or my compulsions, and I try to remember to call those creaky voices by their names when they do their best to shake me awake in the middle of the night: like obnoxious little Rumpelstiltskin wannabes, they lose their power over me when I say their names out loud.
When those anxious thoughts come knocking I try my best to shout loudly over the din. As they cry out, “You definitely have lice!” or “Are you sure the imagined tingling in your right arm isn’t a sign of early on-set alzheimers?!” inside I’m yelling, “Rumpelstiltskin, Rumpelstiltskin, Rumpelstiltskin!” so in those moments of fretful clamor, I remember what my own voice sounds like.
Follow and read more of Nicki’s witty & wise notions on her blog, popularnotions, and follow her on Twitter @nickistein and Instagram @unclejessegrl