I have met a lot of anxious people in my professional work teaching math to adults. Ever calm and patient, I would work with math-anxious students to help them manage the often-overwhelming anxiety they felt trying to make sense of a subject I loved, trying to help them feel more at ease taking tests. We'd talk about strategies to help them relax their minds and bodies so they could access all the knowledge I knew they had inside.
As for myself, feeling anxious wasn’t part of who I thought I was.
I walked into the conference room to see an anxious classmate named James talking to Troy. That particular day he was worried about “The Match”: the process of applying to medical residency. The familiar feeling of tightness in my chest came back as I couldn’t help but overhear James ponder every permutation of what can go wrong in the process. After several minutes of this, I was frustrated. I sent a text to my friend sitting in another part of classroom to complain: James... I can’t right now.
My friend commiserated: No self awareness.
That night I had dinner with a friend who just started residency. I shared with her all of my fears: whether I’ll be a good doctor, whether I’ll be tired and unhappy, and whether I’ll get out of shape in residency. Later on I realized that I had done to my friend what James did to our class: unleashed the burden of my anxiety on a bystander. My friend probably left that conversation feeling as frustrated as I did earlier.
A few months ago, while I was helping my mother organize a suitcase full of various documents, I came across a piece of paper that I had never seen before: my father’s death certificate.
Fifteen years ago, my father suddenly fell ill. After a trip to the hospital, the initial diagnosis was bronchitis. But following three days of unrelenting malaise, my father returned to the hospital and was immediately admitted to the Intensive Care Unit. Two weeks later, he was dead.
My obsession started with Anna Mayfield, one of my labor patients. She had a normal labor, but the baby’s heart rate dropped precipitously in the delivery room.
When the baby was handed off to me, he was dusky, not crying and limp as a piece of cooked spaghetti. I pressed an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth, suctioned mucus from his stomach, rubbed his back, flicked the soles of his feet. He remained unresponsive.
I have always worked to deadlines. Even in college, when I was passionately engaged in a subject like Shakespeare’s plays, I was perversely proud of being able to write “A” papers by staying up all night. My cabinet still holds a paper upon which the professor wrote “I don’t know how, Ms. Gordon, but it seems you have done it again."
It drives my husband crazy. He is a planner, has great self-discipline, a wide variety of interests and an awe-inspiring CV. He can have four projects and three articles in progress at once, tracking his progress on each, while I need to sprint to the finish-line of whichever is due next. If you need me to do something, be sure to tell me when you need it done.
Why is it so hard to just sit down with my hazelnut coffee, a lined pad and good pen or a computer and get to work? Why is the cat suddenly in need of attention? Why am I hungry? Why do the dishes in the sink abruptly become offensive?
It’s 0348. I fell awake at 0234, such a pretty number. I recall residency, it was only a year ago…seeing funny times like that on the top of my consult sheets, praying for a stable floor and speedy 0730.
But I’m not on call. I want to sleep, but I can’t. The melatonin usually works, but it’s been failing of late. Why is that sodium so low? Did I give the right advice to that dad with his child’s fever? That lady with back pain had cancer ten years ago: when was her last mammogram? His cancer is progressing quickly: has he told his wife he wants medical assistance in dying?
The Vietnam war turned Ned from a tough-as-nails fighter into a worried soul as fragile as porcelain. He survived his tour of duty physically intact, but with his emotional resilience worn away like an old roof, allowing disabling fear to deluge over something as routine as a blood pressure check.
I think I was born feeling anxious. If nothing external causes my anxiety, then I find internal reasons: a slight pain in my side, an ache in my head, a bump on my leg. However, once a year—every August—my anxiety leaps off the chart. It is time for my mammogram.