Scheduled Worry Time
The mirror is brand new, freshly installed by the builder of our new home, and when I look into it, I can still smell the crispness of the eggshell-white paint on the walls. The mirror is edged with a thick wooden frame and is mounted above the new quartz countertop in the master bathroom. A new striped rug from the home decor store lies between my bare feet and the black hexagon tiles and I feel its soft newness as I curl my toes in, and out.
I dread this morning routine the way I used to dread taking those horse pills, the thick, chalky white ones that were supposed to send neurotransmitters shooting around in my skull, tackling the little anxieties and wrapping them in calming hugs, securing them with weighted blankets and stuffed animals and comfort foods. This routine, like those pills, was also prescribed, once I got pregnant and couldn’t take the pills anymore because of the uncertainty of their effects on a fetus.
It would probably be fine, they had told me, but after all those years of trying to get pregnant, I couldn’t take the risk. Risks were the reason I took the pills in the first place anyway, weren’t they? What good would it do if I swallowed that mega pill down with a glass of cold water only to add to my list of anxieties: will this pill harm my baby? And of course, my brain wouldn’t stop there, it would go on: Will it disfigure her, slow her heart rate, thicken the amniotic fluid so that she cannot breathe; will she choke on my toxicity?
Would my doctor need to up the dosage, then, to counteract the increase in fear level? What was the point? So, my therapist prescribed this new routine instead: scheduled worry time. It sounded so ridiculous, I laughed at the suggestion in her office, laughed when I got home and told my husband about the new “cure” for my anxiety. Do you believe that? I had said. She wants me to add more time in my day to intentionally be anxious, as if I don’t spend enough of my day worrying. He had shrugged, reminded me I hadn’t wanted to take the pills either, and those had worked.
That first time I tried it, in the old house, before the baby was born, the mirror was wider, chipped at the corner, and it didn’t have a fancy frame–just those plastic mounting clips that don’t look like they should be able to hold the weight of a mirror, let alone the weight of my spoken anxieties, pushed forth with hot breath towards the glass. I remember starting my scheduled worry time thinking about how that mirror could fall right on top of me, break off its flimsy plastic fasteners and tip towards me slowly. Glass would shatter everywhere and slice through my torso, my neck, my skull, wedge right into that overactive brain of mine. Okay, I told myself. Here we go, this is exactly why we’re here. I set the timer on my phone for ten minutes and started giving the mirror my list:
I’m afraid of the mirror falling off the wall and crushing me.
I’m worried I’ll be late for my meeting later.
I’m worried I won’t know what to say.
Or that I’ll drive to the wrong location, even though I’ll check my notes and the directions twenty times before leaving the house.
My list started out simple enough, as if I was still pandering for the mirror, for the woman reflected back at me. I started with those anxieties my therapist said were “normal, rational,” the things everyone worried about. But the rule is, you have to keep going until the timer stops. After the baby is born, my worries intensify because they are not just about me; they are about her. I always run through my simpler anxieties first, the ones about plane crashes and car trouble and saying the wrong things. After about three minutes, I start to run out of basic worries. I start giving a little more detail in order to draw out the seconds:
I’m anxious about driving there alone.
I’m afraid I’ll run out of gas, or crash, or that bridge will collapse as I’m driving under it, that one that looks like it has a crack running through the concrete underneath.
I could see the look in my reflection’s eyes when I recited my anxieties; I could sense her eyebrows raising as the fears became more ridiculous. I could almost see an amused smirk on her lips.
I’m afraid I will die today. I’m afraid this is it and if it is, have I done enough?
I’m afraid I’ll lose my child, like my mother did. That I deserve that punishment, for not understanding her grief.
I’m afraid my daughter will die.
I’m afraid she will die today.
I start casting glances at the timer, pleading with it to be at the end, but it’s only four minutes in–not even halfway. This is when the real truths start pouring out. I am used to imagining my daughter dying in vivid imagery throughout my day, but to say it aloud is exhilarating, spine-chilling.
I picture her swinging back and forth, chubby legs pumping pockets of air beneath the rubber seat of the swing, hands gripping steel chain links, mouth open in a squeal of delight, dipping head and hair back behind her. I imagine her helpless body flying through the air, chain dislodged from its A-frame, a bone-crushing fall. I see fingers caught in metal, wrenched to the side unnaturally. A car in the parking lot nearby losing control, plowing wildly into the swing set.
There’s this incredible thing that happens, when you force yourself to exorcise those thoughts, expel them from within you, in a finite time period. You are telling your brain: this is when we worry. This is how we worry. This is where we worry. You are setting boundaries for when this behavior is allowed, erecting walls within which those anxieties must reside. During those ten minutes though, the mind can go wild with imaginary nightmare scenarios. It is terrifying. It is freeing.
For ten minutes, I tell the mirror my secrets:
I picture my car flipping over. I hear the impact.
I imagine I have forgotten to buckle my daughter’s seat belt. I imagine her flying.
These are the anxieties that a typical person doesn’t have, one whose brother didn’t die from the impact of bones on pavement after being ejected from his truck on Thanksgiving morning.
I hear a knock at the door and I always think it’s that state trooper, coming to break the news again. It’s usually just the mailman. Or a delivery. But I always think it’s the state trooper.
And then I stop the timer, brush my teeth, and go about my day.
When we moved into our new home, and the mirror changed, I had to reacquaint myself with my new setting. I was pregnant again, this time with a boy, this time with an entire family of four to fret about. I had watched as the new house was built, as each pipe was laid, the concrete poured, the gas lines and electrical wires run below the ground. I said to the mirror:
I am afraid the house will explode, with all of us in it.
I am afraid the propane line running underground has a hole in it, is leaking gas that springs from our freshly seeded lawn and if a tiny match is lit, it will all go up in flames.
I imagine my daughter in flames.
The timer goes off and without skipping a beat, I tap the red “stop” button, run a brush through my hair and turn off the bathroom light on my way out. Downstairs, I tug my sneakers on, hop in the car and pull the seat belt over my pregnant belly. I pass by the propane tank partially submerged in the yard, only its lid visible, the line buried below.
I pull the car into the parking lot of my daughter’s school, put the laminated sign with her name up on the windshield, and wait in the carpool lane. I put her favorite song on Spotify and crank the volume up a few notches. I crack open the window, so I can hear her shriek with joy when she spots my car.
She emerges from the school building, passing under the striped awning with her school tote slung over one shoulder, her pink sneakers with the yellow velcro stars on the wrong feet. She is swinging her blonde ponytail side to side, tells me she is a unicorn through silly giggles, squeals, “Neigh! Neigh, mommy, neigh!” She prances along the sidewalk towards my car, beaming.
She is radiant. She is jubilant. She is dazzling.
She is not in flames.
Annie Marhefka is a writer in Baltimore, Maryland. Her creative nonfiction and poetry have been published by Literary Mama, Pithead Chapel, and others. Annie is the Executive Director at Yellow Arrow Publishing, a Baltimore-based nonprofit supporting and empowering women writers, and is working on a memoir about mother/daughter relationships. You can find Annie’s writing on Instagram @anniemarhefka, Twitter @charmcityannie, and at anniemarhefka.com