Anxiety: More Powerful Than a Locomotive

Until recently, I hadn’t visited a doctor in 25 years. I would brag about this streak to my friends; they would often say it’s nothing to be proud of, but I was proud! My last visit, when I was still in high school, had been for an ingrown toenail, but this drought-breaking check up was for something much more nebulous and difficult to define: anxiety.

I’d always had this image of myself as a rascally Jimmy Buffett-type – lying back in my hammock and strumming my guitar somewhere on a secluded desert island. A parrot would be shrieking nearby. My only concern would be how to get out of the hammock so I could mix my next Margarita.

This charade first began to crumble when I became a father. I’m thankful that I’d managed to fend for myself for 40 years, but as a father I found that looking after somebody else and the constant vigilance required quite taxing.

You could say it made me slightly anxious.

Still, my wife was a stoic and reliable person – and sensible, often to an annoying degree. She was also a health nut. I took comfort in this, as it made me realise that my daughter would always have somebody healthy around as a role model and it afforded me to be a little more liberal with how I treated my body.

When my wife was diagnosed with cancer, the balance changed.

The period from her diagnosis to deciding on a course of action, surgery and a brief hospital stay all happened within the course of about a week.

It was a lot to process in a short period of time.

One of the hardest things to deal with was: how would my four-year-old daughter react to her mother being sick? Surely she would be aware of what was going on? Keeping up a brave face for her, as well as dealing with the logistics of my wife’s recovery, was difficult.

My brain reacted in the same way as the HAL 9000 computer did in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL went haywire because he received two conflicting sets of instructions and had to keep the real reason for the mission secret from the crew. I had a set of instructions for my wife and another set for my daughter and they didn’t match up. I honestly needed to sit down, take a stress pill and think things over – but I didn’t know it at the time.

One of the hardest things to deal with was: how would my four-year-old daughter react to her mother being sick?

Things came to a head about two days before my wife was due to go into hospital. I was sitting on the couch. I was feeling a bit agitated. Sometime around 6pm something in my brain just snapped. I was distracting myself by playing the guitar when I suddenly felt a fear that was akin to being pulled out of the audience at the circus, forced to do a triple somersault on the trapeze and then realising there was no net and no-one to catch me. I was hoping none of this was apparent to my wife, who was standing only a few feet away making dinner.

Like some late-19th-century English gentry, I delicately explained to my wife that I was feeling ‘poorly’ and had decided to see the doctor. She had never seen me go to the doctor in all the years she’d known me, so she knew something was up. I knew I couldn’t drive myself so I rang my brother-in-law.

After an arduous wait at the nearest doctor’s office, I was prescribed some short-term medication that helped me get through this period of my wife’s recovery. What really helped me, though, was a visit from my sister and spending time with my daughter. In spite of everything we muddled through, and even managed to have some fun on a few day trips while my wife recovered.

There were a few occasions where my anxiety was triggered again following this period, such as plane flights and crowded spaces, but mostly I had it under control and was able to manage a lot better when my wife’s cancer unexpectedly returned a year later and she had to undergo chemotherapy. It was tough for me and I lacked the imagination to understand how tough it was for her. But somehow we all managed to pull through.

Things came full circle when a woman I barely knew posted to a Facebook group asking for advice. She had been diagnosed with cancer and wanted to know what to tell her four year-old son.

For a change, I actually felt like I had some insightful knowledge to share on this situation and I responded by telling her not to worry about her son and to think about herself. “Children are resilient!” I said.

I just wish someone had told me that so I wouldn’t have worried so much about how my daughter was going to cope. It wouldn’t have made the whole process any easier, but I wouldn’t have spent so much time dividing my attention between my wife and my daughter.

Maybe resilience isn’t something you learn, but rather something you forget.


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