Here is my oldest son, age five, at not quite 6 am: I can’t go to school! His eyes are wild, lidless.
I wrench out the worry like a splinter: His schoolmates have learned new things and he won’t be able to follow. We’ve been out of town. He has missed Monday’s class.
I rub his back, offer reassurances. Maybe you’ll feel better after breakfast, I say.
When I head to the kitchen, he slams his bedroom door, bars himself inside. Don’t make me go!
Mommy and Daddy would never suggest you do something that’s a bad idea, I say—and wonder if it’s true.
He barely removes the thumb from his mouth as I pull a shirt over his head. I lure him out of the house with a lollipop. Midway into the six-minute walk, his panic mounts.
What time is it? he says. Am I late? He takes off down the sidewalk.
Honey, you’re not late, I call. I catch up with him at the intersection, a network of strollers and scooters and clasped hands. He is doubled over.
I have to poop, he says.
School’s across the street. We’ll go to the second-floor bathroom, I say.
No, he screams, and stamps his feet. He is wearing light-up shoes.I don’t want to make too big a deal of his sensitivities, don’t want him to worry about his worry. How to calibrate this?
We drift upstairs with the crowd, and I report him present to his teacher while he twists beside me in visceral discomfort. He agrees to use the toilet only if I wait outside the bathroom, but any relief I feel over this deal dissipates when he reemerges seconds later, pants at his ankles.
I don’t have to go anymore, he says, zipping up his fly. Are you sure? Want to just sit for a minute and see?
I can’t, he says, and hurries to class.
Later he will tell my husband that he was secretly sobbing in bed before he called out to us that morning, that he knew it was silly but couldn’t stop.
A memory. My brother and I sourcing scrap wood from the yard of a home that has recently burned down. We want to build a tree house. I spot a square just the right size for a floor, but it turns out that in the blaze, the lawn has transmuted into thick, sticky mud, and it suctions my shoes, envelops my calves. A few yards away, my brother is swallowed up to his knees. He screams. I’m older, the designated protector. Panic saturates my chest. And then, as if only to test my tolerance, a blue van pulls up.
Kidnappers drive blue vans. We have been warned to steer clear.
A pale man with a splotchy beard pokes his head out the window. Can I help?
We are perfect prey, stuck in a muddy trap on a quiet cul-de-sac around the corner from home, out of our parents’ view. I holler and squirm and somehow tug off my shoes and force my way to the dry edge of the property. I am crying. My brother is bawling.
Young lady, the man repeats. Need help?
I need my father, but retrieving him will mean leaving my brother alone with a strange man. My brother is heaving so hard that I can’t understand him. (Is he saying go or no?) Have I just imagined that the mud is higher on his waist? His body lower in the earth? The driver’s pointed teeth?
I back up slowly, then quickly, then sprint home in socked feet, screaming, frantic, bellowing for my father to come, hurry, danger, death.
The kidnapper is gone when we return. My brother is not.
My father, in his trusty Timberlands, tugs my brother free.
I want to put my son at ease, to talk about his behavior. On the flip side, I don’t want to make too big a deal of his sensitivities, don’t want him to worry about his worry. How to calibrate this? Isn’t it natural not to want to feel left out?
He had a fine day at school, he tells me afterward, followed along just fine. At home, he is back to his upbeat self, playing LEGOs with his little brother, singing a song about sharks. He takes a bath, reads to me from Frog and Toad. I pet his hair, consider the skull beneath it, the brain beneath that, how soft it is, how susceptible. I hum a lullaby. He jolts upright.
What if I can’t find my classroom? he says. What?
Parents can’t go upstairs with their kids in first grade. What if I don’t know where to go?
Inhale, exhale. First grade is seven months away. We’ll visit ahead of time, I say. You won’t get lost. Okay?
The whites of his eyes glow in the dark.
Sometimes I am jarred from sleep by the memory of being jarred from sleep. A mechanized voice explodes through the walls of my childhood bedroom. You have violated a protected area! The police were called! Leave immediately!
There’s beeping as my father tries to disable the alarm—
Leave! Immediately!—and concerned cries from my mother.
My father, tired, tense, presses the wrong keys, tripping a siren so loud that no one would hear me if I screamed.
Then, heart-thrumming quiet.
The creak of the stairs as he goes to investigate. The unnerving trill of the phone: a security company employee demanding a password. They need to confirm that person who picks up is not an intruder.
Probably just a malfunction, says my father, a sudden silhouette in the doorway. He is six feet tall but seems taller. Tree branch shadows slice his chest. Our alarm system is the best on the market, he reminds me. The most secure. I don’t ask why we also have a motion-sensitive light at the top of the driveway and lamps attached to timers—ones whose “on” time is regularly adjusted in case anyone’s noticed a pattern. I don’t ask about the radios my mother switches on in the kitchen and basement whenever we leave, to give the illusion that someone’s home. I don’t ask why we do all this when we live in an exceptionally safe New York suburb.
Darkness whirs like static.
Go to bed, insists my father. I feel around for my stuffed bear, massage his ears into tendrils.
I wake to Oliver scream-crying. What is it? I say. What’s wrong? He cannot be consoled, seems to simultaneously need me and not want me near. Does something hurt? I ask.
Don’t, he says as I reach for a hug, legs and arms thrashing. Stop! His cries wake his baby brother, with whom he shares a room. The wailing doubles.
While my husband settles our toddler, I get Oliver a cup of water and a wet washcloth. I pat his forehead, which is distorted with distress.
I had a nightmare, he says finally, that you were a monster. He wants reassurance that I am who I say I am. That I’m not a demon disguised as his mom. He makes me pinkie swear. Breath snags on a branch in my throat.
It’s me, I say, as our fingers interlock. It’s really and only me.
Halloween 2001. In front of my Greenwich Village building, I hid in a blond wig and fur coat, my eyes charcoaled like Margot Tenenbaum’s. I was 23. The costume permitted me to chain-smoke.
My date for the evening: a med student I’d met at a party the week before. You shouldn’t do that, he said as I lit up. He was wearing a scuba suit.
We crossed the street to the firehouse, where seven flags flapped for the Squad 18 men lost in the wreckage of the Twin Towers. We passed George W. Bush and Betty Boop and Ghostface wielding a hunting knife. Around the corner, on Greenwich Avenue, I mistook SWAT team members for costume-wearers until I saw a gym bag cordoned off by yellow tape. An officer lifted his megaphone, warned the assembling crowd to move back.
I didn’t have to hear the whispers to know the word they contained. Anthrax. Since the cataclysm a few subway stops south, envelopes packed with the spores had been landing at news outlets and government offices around the city. Mail room employees had developed skin ulcers. Five had inhaled the bacteria and died.
Med Student tugged on my arm. We reversed our steps, scurried around the corner and past the firehouse and into my building and up to the windowless living room in my sixth-floor apartment. He was panting. In the weak lamplight, the humps of his scuba suit glowed—pectorals, crotch, knees. I imagined he’d just swum the English Channel. He shook out his hair, smoothed it aside.
I have Cipro, he said. Ciprofloxacin, the anthrax antidote. Those days, it was in short supply. He retrieved a bottle from his workbag on the floor, shook two oblong pills into his palm. Said he: Want?
At the Brooklyn nail salon, nine months pregnant with Oliver and itching for a vacation, I chose a garish purple called Bahama Mama. I needed something loud and cheery to disguise my ravaged fingernails, little landscapes I tore apart with my teeth. I was ashamed to hold out my hands.
Bad habit, I told the manicurist. She furrowed her brows. I wondered how much she understood from a person’s fingers. From the stories they told. On the wall, a TV confirmed blazing spirals spinning toward New York and maps of hurricane evacuation zones, infected, red-edged scabs. She massaged my palms too hard. I did not tell her to stop.
Perhaps there was reason to panic, but I wouldn’t. Even while pregnant. Especially while pregnant. From my research, I knew the risks of agitation, knew that high levels of cortisol in a stressed-out body can impair a developing fetus. This was why I was soaking my hands in warm water and why, for the past nine months, I’d attended prenatal yoga classes and received massages and tried acupuncture and paid weekly visits to a clinical psychologist and dodged interpersonal drama and violent TV. I aspired to relax.
The mental state proved harder to attain without pharmaceutical support. The social worker to whom I’d sobbed a decade prior had consulted a psychiatrist and, after trial and error and lethargy and tremors, I’d found a prescription that restored some oxygen to my lungs. Now, though, with the threat of congenital harm and chemical-laden breast milk, I’d reversed course.
In through the nose, out through the mouth: the centuries-old technique for ushering in tranquility. The air smelled of acetone.
I was seven when I lost my breath for the first time. In a house that bulged with emergency provisions (350 bottles of water, I once counted; 1,600 trash bags), I gripped the kitchen counter and wheezed until I nearly collapsed.
Dr. Horowitz had crater-covered cheeks, and while he peered down my throat, I watched a drop of sweat glide along a recessed trail, watched it pause at a crossroads near his jaw as if deciding the safest way forward.
The cold stethoscope made me hiccup. I lifted my arms, stuck out my tongue, puffed out my cheeks, pressed on his hands. Nothing appears to be wrong, he said. Still, for days afterward I struggled against shallow breaths that left me feeling wasted. I saw an allergist, whose tests proved inconclusive, and a pulmonologist, who said my condition was beyond his capacity to treat. I was suffering, he said, from hyperventilation. What I needed wasn’t a medical doctor. What I needed was a shrink.
Tape large orange reflective stickers to the front and back of your Halloween costume so cars can spot you trick-or- treating—even though you’ll be teased for looking like a parking (Dad: I’d rather you be a live parking cone than a dead witch!)
Eat Halloween candy only after you’ve broken apart each piece to inspect it for needles and Chew. Slowly.
In the glove compartment of the car you share with your siblings, store a flashlight, a poncho, bottled water, a disposable camera, mace, and a compact emergency blanket made of Mylar, a fabric designed by NASA for space exploration.
Do not let the fuel tank dip below half.
Tuck the bottoms of your pants into your socks when in nature, and never, ever step barefoot in the grass. Lyme disease–carrying ticks are invisible and insidious and you could wind up like Sherry, Dad’s former student: listless and allergic to light.
Don’t shower or talk on the phone during a thunderstorm; lightning can shoot through pipes or wires and fry you. Mother Nature doesn’t mess around.
Never wear clothes or items that display your name; a predator may try to befriend you.
When you go on vacation, even to a nice hotel, even to a developed country, pack a suitcase full of pharmaceuticals and first-aid supplies for any potential injury or ailment.
Lock everything, including your desk drawers, including your diary, including the small mustard-colored safe you will get for Hanukkah, including the key to said safe, which you will hide in a passcode-protected box.
The shrink had a cleft lip and low-hanging breasts and told me to call her Marlene. She supplied paper and markers and watched with folded hands as I drew.
Was it significant that I sketched the tree in my parents’ backyard, the one with the toxic fruit I was warned not to eat? Marlene pushed her oversize glasses up the bridge of her nose and followed my gaze to the Xerox machine. Did I want to make copies? I nodded, and presto! A dozen sets of sinewy branch-arms and elliptical leaves and patches of grass strewn with rotten apples. I taped a few to her wood-paneled walls, then moved on to the hallway. Up went tree after tree, a protective row, at the end of which was the waiting area—and my parents. Their expressions were cryptic and unstable, mouths alternating between semi-smiles and half frowns.
Having fun? they said.
I visited Marlene a few more times. At our last session, I took her picture with my lavender camera, just as I took pictures of my oatmeal and my comb, just as I used a diary to catalog my playdates and the books I checked out of the library. When my mom offered to take a photo of Marlene and me, we shuffled together. In the image, I look cheery, my braid brushing the high waistband of her skirt, the teeth in my mouth at various stages of coming and going. I still believed in the tooth fairy. Was the source of my stress just as mythical? What did I say was plaguing me?
Maybe the signs were hard to read. Maybe Marlene missed them. All I know is that my treatment concluded. My disquiet did not.
I browse medical journals and textbooks to learn about parent-child transfer. I find articles on neurobiology and heredity and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. I read about uniparental inheritance, how the maternal passing-on of mitochondria means children carry more of their mother’s genes than their father’s. I read a study about six hundred rhesus monkeys from a multigenerational family, and how the primates with anxious temperaments ceased to move or coo in the presence of a “potentially threatening human intruder” while their even-tempered relatives didn’t react. The study is unnerving. The text is dense, inscrutable. I ask my therapist for interpretive help. She finds the study unnerving. She finds the text dense, inscrutable. She wants to know what I’m looking for.
Evidence, I say.
Anxiety migrated and morphed in adolescence, usually unprovoked. A shadow that appeared and retreated depending on the position of the sun, stalking my body but separate from it. It showed itself in the cuticles I pecked and picked at until they oozed and throbbed. At age eleven, it settled in my jaw, which ceased to be able to chew more than a few bites without burning. TMJ disorder resulted from clenching my teeth like fists. The dentist outfitted me with a clear plastic mouth guard that I had to wear day and night for a year and scrub with a toothbrush. Worry even crept into my capillaries, causing my nose to bleed while reading, while running, while taking exams. Sorry, I told teachers as I submitted answer sheets festooned with pink, feathery smears. Droplets I’d tried to efface with my sleeve. At 15, I got cauterized, a procedure during which an ENT stuck up my nose a wand that emitted an electric current to singe and seal the vessels. Still, it bled.
I turn the dial, try a different combination, wait for a click. The elementary school social worker is an overworked, patient brunette who writes Oliver’s name on the lip of a file folder. When I describe his behavior, she proposes observing him in class.
I want to see his environment, she says.
His environment. I can speak to it, too, if she wants to know. I can tell her that we have no alarm system or emergency provisions. That he doesn’t wear reflective stickers on Halloween and that he carries a backpack that bears his name. I can speak to his uterine environment too. The measures I took. The yoga. And yet.
How do you respond when he gets anxious? she asks.
Well, I say, I don’t want to exacerbate it, so I speak in a soft and measured way. I put up a shield of faux calm.
She nods, jots something down on a scrap of paper, slides it across the table. It’s a doctor in Park Slope, she says. Maybe if you talk to her you can respond to him with real calm instead of faux calm.
There is a crab apple in my throat. I understand the connotation. I am grateful she does not say it aloud. In this equation, I am both his nature and his nurture.
Your breath: Diaphragm flattens, ribs rise, oxygen tunnels through tubes, and air sacs fill, lungs inflate. And the reverse: rise, fall, deflate.
I had my first panic attack in college, in a fine arts building bathroom, on a break from Drawing II. I held the stall walls as my breath thrashed and the world galloped and the tiles trembled under my feet. I sweated through a pair of overalls. My teeth chattered all the way home.
Shortly after graduation, overwhelmed with being overwhelmed, I looked up therapist in the yellow pages and selected whomever in my vicinity could meet the soonest. My would-be savior was a pale, plump, soft-spoken social worker in Greenwich Village. She had barely taken off her coat when I collapsed in sobs.
Here’s what I told my date on Halloween in 2001 when I declined his Cipro: If we were going the way of biological warfare, if the apocalypse were imminent, I didn’t want to be left on a planet populated exclusively by neurotics with survival kits. I would rather die.
An attempted abduction at our local playground. I alert my husband, text the babysitter, set my jaw. That night, I tell my children about stranger danger. What if someone approaches you and says they’re Mommy’s friend? I ask. What if someone acts like they know you? They are the same questions my parents used to ask me, the same scenarios. I tell my children, as my parents told me: Always check with your grown-up.
At the nail salon, a message from my mother: Fill your bathtub with water!
Moments later, from my father: Pack a go bag with your important papers!
My parents no longer speak—divorce—but their voices unite in crises. Hurricane Irene registered as a Category 4. Storms this intense, said the meteorologist, could produce winds of 150 miles per hour. A cartoon cloud appeared on the screen with puffed-out cheeks and vexed brows, lines of air tunneling from its mouth. Out the window, locals rolled suitcases down the sidewalk and joined a queue snaking out of the supermarket, where bottled water was already in short supply.
At home that night, while the wind picked up and the lights quivered, while my husband gathered candles and flash- lights, I sang a song to my belly. Goodnight, Irene. Goodnight, Irene. I’ll see you in my dreams. I sang and I hummed, unaware of the rest of the lyrics. Sometimes I live in the country. Sometimes I live in town. Sometimes I have a great notion to jump into the river and drown.
By 2 a.m., our windows clattered and Oliver twisted and kicked. Not tonight, I whispered. Hang on. Taxis had stopped running. The local hospital had cleared out its patients and bolted its doors after a generator lost power. I wondered if I should’ve taken protective measures. If my nonchalance would compromise my family’s safety. Only later would I learn that the New York City Emergency Management department recommended that residents prepare a go bag with small bills and identifying documents in waterproof sleeves, that it advised having an emergency supply kit stocked for survival for seven days, complete with a gallon of drinking water per person per day, nonperishable foods, a wind-up radio, and iodine pills. I would discover that some people in my social circle took such precautions. A friend who keeps headlamps and an air horn at the ready. Another, harnesses and a belaying device. I’d learn about a distant cousin’s store of tampons to plug “a gash, deep cut, bullet wound, or some other serious puncture.” I’d long assumed such measures created an illusion of control in the face of upheaval. Like my parents’ glove compartment stash. When, in 2020, a coronavirus would require us to quarantine for countless months, and we’d all wear masks and gloves and avoid people and stores would run out of everything, I would wonder who the wise ones were. How impossible it had been to imagine a crisis of such magnitude, one that would require measures so extreme. How easy it had been to roll my eyes.
Out the bedroom window, branches waved like drowning arms. I rubbed the bump of Oliver’s heel and picked Bahama Mama off my nails until my claws peeked through.
In the morning I strolled still streets, past a felled branch, an upturned umbrella. I paced the promenade, pressed against the railing, and squinted across New York Harbor at the cranes looming over Ground Zero.
Oliver can’t breathe. These are the words he uses. His younger brother has asthma, and he wants to know if he needs medicine too. If he needs a nebulizer. If he’ll need an inhaler. I watch his shoulders rise, eyes widen, chest swell. He can’t breathe in all the way, he says, can’t take a deep breath. It’s not like wheezing. It’s different.
I stare agog. Think about something else, I say, something peaceful. Picture the beach. It’s a cliché that never helped me, but in the moment, I strain to remember what did. I am too horrified that there might be a kink in human DNA that maps not just to childhood anxiety but to this precise presentation of it.
On a train from New York to New Jersey, I yawn and recall a time my mother tried to reverse a bout of childhood insomnia. Focus on one limb of your body at a time, she whispered in the dark. Tell each toe to relax.
The train squeaks to a halt in Newark, but the doors in our car fail to open. A woman out of sight begins to shout, Where do I get out?
Then there’s my father, flexing his biceps to quell concern that someone might climb through my bedroom window, impossibly hard orbs that my hands cannot encircle. Who would mess with this? he says. Who?
The woman on the train is getting louder, more frantic. Someone, tell me where to get out! No one responds; no one knows. I look around for an employee. I don’t see one.
Neither of my parents remembers me being so anxious. My memories surprise them. Confuse them. Are you sure?
The following week, I will teach my son to practice blowing soap bubbles through a plastic wand, a technique I’ll read about to summon calm. Take a deep breath so you can make a big bubble, I’ll explain, but blow out slowly so the bubble doesn’t pop. He will watch me do it and he will learn and we will regain control.
Help, the woman shouts. Her voice is almighty. I need to get off! The train has already begun to roll.
From Spilt Milk by Courtney Zoffness. Used with the permission of McSweeney’s. Copyright © 2021 by Courtney Zoffness.