The Art of Anxiety

Tuesday. February 18

I stop at the red light, look to the left, and seeing that it’s clear, I make a right turn onto Hwy 116. I waited until after the commute traffic period to leave, so there are very few other cars on the road with me. It’s overcast but visibility is good, and I can see the road ahead of me with no problem.

For no reason the pit of my belly seems to sink, and a second later bubbling anxiety fills me, followed by a thought; Did I lock the front door when I left? I’m heading to San Francisco to have lunch with a friend at the Ferry Terminal Building. I’ll be gone most of the day. Is my home open and vulnerable to thieves as I drive away?

I always lock the door when I leave, so I’m sure I locked it. I must have. Didn’t I? In cinematic jump-cut fashion, by mind serves up another thought-image. What if I never put my passport back in the safe deposit box? What if I lost it? Then what will I do?

I can say with complete modesty that I am, or used to be, a world-class worrier. If I arrived somewhere early to meet a friend, and the friend was a minute late, I would worry I was in the wrong place. I would worry about being late. I would worry about being too early – which, because I acted on the worry of being late, was at least a realistic worry, since I was often impolitely early and would have to sit in my car and read a book or something. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better. This irrational kind of worry/fear today, though, is fed by anxiety. I don’t get the full-blown, short-of-breath, high-blood-pressure anxiety attacks that land some people in the hospital. I just get episodes like this.

Often, I get these weird, out-of-nowhere thoughts because my memory really does work this way. No, I didn’t press the little button on the key fob, and my car is not locked. Yes, I did leave the coffee warmer on, or yes, I did leave my keys dangling from the lock on the outside, when I came home five hours ago.

This is not one of those times, and the real clue to that is the passport. Leaving for the day to go to San Francisco, which, contrary to the opinion of some of my conservative friends, is not a foreign country, does not require a passport. I last used the passport in November. The first work day after I got home, I walked up to the bank and put it back in the safe deposit box. Intellectually, I know this. No, this anxiety is about something different.

Perhaps I’m apprehensive about driving to the ferry landing in Larkspur. Let’s review those directions from where I am now. Get on the freeway and follow the freeway to Sir Francis Drake exit, which also has a sign saying “Ferry.” Turn left. Turn right. Park. Pay the fare. And that’s it. I have a Clipper Card with a positive balance. The whole ferry thing is less stressful and more fun than going over the Golden Gate Bridge and fighting city traffic.

Anxiety, for me, wells up in direct proportion to how many important things in my life are currently beyond my control. I don’t have anxious thoughts like this about the American Idol tryouts. Right now, though, a dear friend is just home from the hospital after an event that was probably a stroke. She is waiting to see a doctor and find out just what happened. Everything is up in the air right how. Two nights ago my mother in law went into the hospital. They are hydrating her, and trying to figure out exactly what virus is causing her symptoms. They don’t know, yet.

The image of my front door intensifies. Thirty years ago, I would have turned off, circled back around and checked the door, surrendering to my anxiety. Today I don’t. I drive, I park, I stand in the stern of the super-fast ferry Napa and fight to keep my footing against the wind. I take pictures, and nearly lose my glasses when a gust propels them off my nose. I meet Donna at the terminal and we talk about writing, about book, and writers’ groups, about family, about food, and I have a great time.

When I get home, before I slip my key into the lock, I try the doorknob. It doesn’t move. The door is locked, safe and sound, just as I left it, when I locked the door behind me, as I always do.

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