Unravel With Me: Nora McInerny Reflects on an Anxious Life
"It all matters so much in the moment, no matter how old you are."
My favorite category of YouTube video is a Get Ready With Me, where a young person will train a camera on their face during their morning routine, narrating their actions and releasing their inner monologue for the benefit of their invisible audience. At the end, you’ve watched a sleepy twentysomething transform into a sexy twentysomething, and you have some aspirational new products to try. It’s the exact opposite of how I start my own days, which I would categorize as an instantaneous coming apart as I gain consciousness.
Anxiety is a serious and sometimes debilitating mental health issue that affects millions of people worldwide, but when you’re, say, trying to explain to another person who has not fallen down the spiral staircase of your worst thoughts why exactly you’re unable to walk through a grocery store without imagining every single can, shelf, and cart rotting in a future landfill, poisoning our soil and returning as radioactive carrots and kale, you have to admit that it’s also… a little embarrassing. I’m embarrassed for myself every time anxiety loosens its grip on my brain, even when I’m the only witness to the thoughts that hijacked my otherwise capable brain and turned it into a kaleidoscope of Worst-Case Scenarios.
It doesn’t matter how many “tools” my therapist, Allen, has given me for my “toolbox,” every time it feels like the house is crumbling around me, I’d rather curl up in the fetal position than root around for a hammer. My unanxious brain can see things for what they are: sad or grueling or frightening, but not an imminent threat to my own safety. But my anxious brain knows that it is the rational brain, that these worries are not superficial when even a glance at the news app confirms that we are indeed living in the End of Times. Things are as bad as they seem, if not worse, and I’m worried that it was a mistake to have children, to bring them into the world when it feels like we’re in the final act.
On a road trip through northern Arizona, the sky is black with smoke from fires ripping through the high desert forests. We spend a summer break on a lake in Minnesota whose waters have receded so far that jumping off the dock would mean snapping your ankles on the lake bed that is just four inches below the surface of the water. Everything in our house will someday be a piece of garbage poisoning the earth. Allen asks me to practice interrupting the thought cycle: to see my thoughts floating in and decide whether or not I will think them. I’m not fast enough to be The Thought Catcher, and these ideas are slippery as minnows, though minnows are probably not long for this world, are they?I’m embarrassed for myself every time anxiety loosens its grip on my brain, even when I’m the only witness to the thoughts that hijacked my otherwise capable brain and turned it into a kaleidoscope of Worst-Case Scenarios.
I’ve known since I can remember knowing anything that it’s all going too fast, all spinning out of our control. Our parents proudly sent us to the Catholic grade school in our neighborhood, a three-story redbrick structure that loomed ominously over the local Walgreens we poured into after the bell rang, eager to buy two-for-a-dollar candy bars to split on the walk home. Catholic school conjures up a lot of assumptions: strict nuns, itchy uniforms, and daily Mass. But Annunciation Catholic School was different. We had uniforms and a few nuns, but we also had Mrs. Strickland.
Mrs. Strickland wore flowy dresses and jumpsuits, big silver rings on every finger, and an inordinate amount of authority for a woman whose one-woman department was Creative Arts. Creative Arts could and did mean anything. Twice a week, we’d walk to Mrs. Strickland’s room, the former choir loft overlooking the former chapel was now our auditorium and lunchroom. There were no desks or chalkboards, no overhead lighting. Scarves covered the lamps, and a pile of cushions and carpet squares were our seats. The walls were covered with posters for Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, photos of past students and of Mrs. Strickland herself, younger but otherwise exactly the same, strumming an acoustic guitar on the stage below us. In our forty minutes together, she’d play music and we’d sing along, picking up lyrics as we went, unconcerned with tone, pitch, or harmony.
We sang Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, “Free to Be You and Me,” all songs we assumed she wrote herself. Once, Mrs. Strickland had cleared every classroom and arranged three-hundred-plus children in a circle in our auditorium to replicate the sounds of a rainstorm, pointing at us to indicate whether we should rub our hands together, snap our fingers, clap our hands, or stomp our feet. She played conductor for what felt like hours, and the rest of the teachers stood on the periphery, giving up on their lesson plans so that we could fully immerse ourselves in the creative art of… sound?
Other teachers were concerned with test scores and quizzes, but Mrs. Strickland was only concerned with our artistic expression… and hers. By the end of every September, our school schedules would revolve around the upcoming Christmas Pageant, a compulsory performance that included every student from kindergarten through eighth grade. Our school schedules would revolve around rehearsals and blockings and costume prep, Mrs. Strickland breezing into the math or science class to announce she needed us down in the auditorium to sing “Feliz Navidad.”
The Christmas Pageant included four nights of performances for parents and family, and matinee performances for the entire school, where we’d alternate from audience to performers in the same room where we ate our hot lunches and held our Girl Scout meetings. The pageant ended, every year, with over three hundred children singing Kermit’s “The Christmas Wish,” a song originally performed by an amphibious puppet that made our parents weep behind their camcorders. We understood our job in these performances was to evoke feeling in our audience, to impress upon our parents the fleeting nature of our childhoods and their lives.
We knew that we had just these few years with Mrs. Strickland and with one another, that graduating from eighth grade would scatter us to different high schools and different futures, that we would one day be strangers to one another, names and faces in moldy yearbooks signed with bubble letters and scented pens. Mrs. Strickland’s room was filled with the ephemera of kids who had come before us, some of whom were now the parents sitting in the auditorium, singing along to the same songs they had sung as children. We were nostalgic for childhoods that had not yet ended, already missing what was right in front of us.
Ralph is tall and reedy, with knobby knees and bony elbows. He weighs so little that if I lift him with too much enthusiasm, it feels like he could fly out of my arms and be carried away by a breeze. He is nearly five feet tall, and carrying him looks a little ridiculous, but every time he approaches me with his arms outstretched, I lift him up and feel his legs wrap around me. “Someday you won’t be able to do this,” he whispers into my hair, and I hold on a little bit tighter, knowing that the words that follow this sentence will be a pitch for a new video game or money for an in-app purchase, that this sentimentality is sincere and manipulative all at once. He has not had enough time to be seven, and I have not had enough time to hold him, none of it will ever be enough.
At night, he asks me to sing to him, not caring about my lack of vocal range or whether I’m hitting the notes. I pull from my childhood and sing him the songs that Mrs. Strickland taught us. Some are silly—sandwiches are beautiful, sandwiches are fine, I like sandwiches, I eat them all the time—and some give me the same ache I had at his age. Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” hits a little different when you’re singing it to your child than when you are a child.
My children are growing up spoiled and unappreciative of a world where the grown-ups in their lives appreciate and respect their feelings and mental health. They don’t know that just a few decades ago, even adults dropped the r-word casually, and that words “mental” and “health” had yet to be paired together within the public consciousness. We certainly didn’t refer to the unwell as “mentally ill” but by their specific diagnoses, real or assumed. People were nuts, schizo, bipolar, or fucking crazy. The absence of hearing voices or hallucinating indicated that you were A-OK, so what would you possibly have to complain about?
Mrs. Strickland seemed to understand what so many adults did not: that childhood was uncertain and sometimes frightening, that the children she pulled out of math class to create an interpretive dance or to learn how to lip-synch Elton John already knew more about the world than we thought we did, that the passing of our childhood was no small thing, and that there was no such thing as a small event. Perspective is always relative, and while I can say with confidence that it is not the end of the world that our daughter is disliked by a classmate, it matters very much that it feels like the end of her world right now.
It all matters so much in the moment, no matter how old you are. The worries I’m tending to right now will someday disappear altogether, melted into the softest parts of my brain. I spent two years working with a (male) colleague who made my work and home life miserable. He was unkind on good days, cruel and punitive on bad ones. His name in my inbox filled me with dread, seeing him in a conference room pushed me into fight-or-flight. \Writing this, I cannot for the life of me recall his name. Instead, he has been replaced with new nemeses and antagonists real and imagined. This will happen for our daughter, too. The girl who stares holes into the back of her skull in math class will be replaced by another person, and another, and another. Today’s anxieties and shortcomings and grudges will be pushed to the edges of our consciousness, an endless spool of thread unraveling like I do every morning.
From Bad Vibes Only (And Other Things I Bring to the Table) by Nora McInerny. Reprinted by permission of Atria/One Signal Publishers, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2022 by Nora McInerny.