There is probably a genetic connection to Generalized Anxiety Disorder, at least partially. The furthest back I can trace this likelihood is in my maternal grandmother.
Her parents immigrated from Poland to the Chicago area around 1913. First her mother came with their two young children. Ten years later, her father joined the family and nobody knows why it took him that long exactly. He couldn’t get out of Poland because Jews had limited rights. He had to save money to smuggle himself. Maybe he was involved in WWI in some way, nobody knows for sure. And nobody is around anymore to ask. Probably, it’s a some of all of the above.
Once her parents were reunited, they had two more children fifteen months apart. The older of the two would be my mother’s mother. The younger just died last month around age 93.
My grandmother shared a bed with her sister until she got married at the age of twenty, and then she shared a bed with her husband for the next 55 years until his death. She lived for about ten years after that.
In the early 1950s, with two young children themselves, my grandparents moved from Chicago to North Hollywood, California, because the weather was so nice. That’s where my mother and her brother, my uncle, grew up.
Nobody ever diagnosed my grandmother with mental illness that I’m aware of. Everyone just described her as fearful, and she did have a lot of fears. For her, this was just a safe and sensible way to live.
“Don’t go out at night,” she’d say when I was a teenager. “That’s when the crazy people are out.”
“Crazy people are out all the time,” I’d answer. “They’re just easier to see at night because all the normals stay home.”
She would leave her car on the outskirts of mall parking lots, or only park on the street if there was a driveway in front of her, and she’d always leave the car at the bottom of the driveway so that my grandfather could back it all the way up and into the garage. This was all so that she could avoid ever having to move the vehicle in reverse.
Timing is weird. I put in a request for two days vacation a month before Halloween weekend, 2009. I’d been going to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy group sessions weekly since about mid-summer. They said after about twelve weeks most people would have the debilitating panic part of Generalized Anxiety Disorder under control.
Following the maxim that Generalized Anxiety Disorder has no triggers, I concluded that I have a basic fear of death. Sudden death, to be sure, but that’s irrational, since you won’t know if you die suddenly. So, my anxiety expresses itself in the fear of knowing that it’s coming soon. As if I keep looking over my shoulder, I can somehow keep it from turning the corner and catching up to me or something. It’s all internal. Not about where, when, or with whom it comes about. But usually when I’m distracted by other people being around, I can briefly forget about death.
I’ve met people who are afraid of driving over bridges or on freeways, or are afraid that they’ll be randomly attacked, home invaded, or simply that they’ll have too much attention at a party and not know how to act or what to say. I’m fortunate that I don’t share these concerns, but I do also have a general awareness of how delicate humanity really is. And how dangerous our lives are, and that the entire species could vanish after a meteor collision, droughts, catastrophic natural occurrences, or significant climate change. Dying freaks me out, but the idea that there may never be another person to come along and interpret anything that any human culture ever produced again is totally devastating to me. And I don’t understand why more people are not concerned about it. Why we’re not friendlier and more conservation-oriented.
The Department Manager (who’d complained about having to submit an incident report to her supervisors for when I was taken out of work by paramedics to the emergency room) rejected my vacation request out of spite. But Magnolia and I already had tickets and reservations for Portland, so of course we went. Besides, the vacation request was just a formality because I had enough sick leave (PTO – paid time off) to call out anyway.
In Portland, I watched Magnolia flirt pretty directly with a guy right in front of me in a way that should have made things more obvious about where we were headed. She was drunk and maybe she didn’t think I noticed. Or she didn’t care.
When we got back, my Department Manager called me in to ask why I’d called out over the weekend. She was an American white woman with dyed blonde hair and an orange spray tan. “You know that weekends are very important for our sales,” she said.
“Yes, I understand,” I said.
“So, why didn’t you come in this past weekend?” she asked.
“I wasn’t able to come in,” I said.
“I called out because I was not able to come in,” I said.
She wanted me to admit that I’d made a vacation request and that she’d denied it and therefore I knew I was expected to come in. But I did not want to have that conversation, and she should have expected me not to come in, because she knew I had made the request and that I had the sick days to use otherwise.
But this wasn’t about any of that, really. It was about low sales numbers. I thought I was working in the store as a Makeup Artist to help women (and some men, and whoever else along the gender spectrum) learn how to enhance their features and choose colors that complemented their taste, complexions, and so on. Blue eyes? You might like this metallic gold eye shadow and flat dark brown as part of a smoky eye. Try that look with a neutral lip.
Secondarily, I knew I was also working as a Beauty Advisor to make suggestions on skincare routines and offer various products to address specific concerns. The Account Executives and Coordinators for our brand would agree, although they called this element of the job uncovering needs. I thought of it more as exploiting insecurities, which is why I chose not to make the leap from helping clients with whatever they said they were looking for to hard-selling them on unrealistic aesthetic standards. I don’t believe in wrinkle correctors because I do not believe wrinkles are something that need to be corrected, which wasn’t possible with our products anyway.
Furthermore, the connection that two people make by looking each other in the eyes and discussing sensitive aspects of one’s personal life and appearance – and these often go together – had become sacred to me. I did not want to leverage their trust and my psychological awareness to make a buck.
But, my Department Manager saw me only as a Sales Associate, a line item, really, in a report that said my performance was substandard. Since I was part of an (albeit weak) union, there wasn’t a lot she could do if I made the minimums, except for give me grief about sick days.
The next day, my grandmother died. As I filled out the bereavement form to take the next weekend off, I wondered if the Department Manager would believe this excuse. But I didn’t care.
My dad gave the eulogy at her funeral. He’s her son-in-law, a professor and historian and therefore an experienced public speaker. He also wrote the eulogy, which portrayed my grandmother as a cardshark who loved her family more than anything else aside from winning card games. This was because she believed, as he said, that she used to say, “There’s no family in cards.”
It was a well-written speech, but not particularly accurate in my view. Not as if that matters for a funeral. The first part was definitely true. Truer than true, really. My grandmother lived for her family. She had a few friends, but she spent most of most days sitting in the window waiting for either my uncle, my mom, or myself to come home and hang out with her. My parents and my grandmother had sold their houses and moved into a really big house together, where my uncle also stayed most of the time.
My grandmother told my mom near her final years that the happiest time in her life was sitting in her bedroom with my mom and I watching Oprah and gabbing. That was it. She was afraid of animals and used to pet the cat using the TV remote. She never traveled to a foreign country, and never went on a vacation anywhere she hadn’t been, other than to visit relatives.
She used to say to me, “I don’t believe in sex without a license,” meaning she thought I should only have sex with someone I was married to, like she did. But she also said she thought, “People should go with their own kind,” meaning I should only marry a (preferably Ashkenazi) Jewish woman. I do not excuse her point of view as indicative of her generation. I see her prejudices as embedded into her shuttered lifestyle, one that contained fears for all elements foreign and adventurous, anything outside of her specific way of living and away from her home and immediate neighborhood mainstays.
I do believe that had she grown up in a different time and place, she probably would not carry human bigotries regarding culture and ethnicity. She’d likely always be afraid of unknown others, but to me that’s mostly about exposure. Many of her closest friends were people of color, so she wasn’t exactly racist, though unenlightened as it is, she certainly saw superficial differences among marginalized groups as significant.
“Anyone can be my kind,” I’d say to her, feeling then as now that her perspective on potential wives was a little too incestuous.
But, of course it’s completely inappropriate to say any of this upon one’s passing. I’m only mentioning it now to fill out the picture of an anxious person, probably one with a psychological divergence like Generalized Anxiety Disorder, misunderstood and unexplained in her time. Instead, though, my dad talked about cards.
I drove my grandmother to some of her weekly card games, and I’d say she didn’t care at all about winning. Every now and then she’d reach into her closet and give me a few butter tubs full of pennies, her jackpots from however many games. So, at least she didn’t care about that part, the take. Her and her friends exclusively played Kalooki, and when she taught it to my mom and I, her version was the opposite of say, cutthroat. She showed us how to be nice to the other players, even though the goal is to eviscerate them in points.
She was ill for a while and elderly anyway, so her death was not at all a surprise. Given my anxieties and fear of death for myself, I wasn’t freaked out about the cycle of life as it applied to her. Also, I was removed from the reality of it because Jews do not host open casket funerals.
About three weeks later, Magnolia went back home for Thanksgiving. I had to work so I stayed in SF. When she returned, she became embroiled in a nearly constant texting exchange with some old flame she’d banged while she was away. She lied and lied and lied to me about the nature of this, and eventually I found some dick pics he sent her on her phone along with plans to meet again and all that. It was all a long time coming, but like I said, it would have been nice if she’d just have cut clean, though I don’t think that was possible for her.
She moved out after Xmas. None of it was easy. I found some stupid hipster ground mat she bought for us to sit on in the park and burst out crying. Then I burst out crying again telling my therapist about how ridiculous I felt about crying over a blanket alternative.
By then, the panic attacks seemed to be a little more seated. If that massive episode that sent me to the hospital was a 10/10, now I was keeping them below 7.65/10 or so, and often less. The CBT really helped, when I could remember to do the exercises. But the frequency that Generalized Anxiety Disorder showed up remained consistent around a few times a day.
Transparency: From 2007-2014, I worked at the Clinique counter at Macy’s Union Square in Downtown San Francisco. Being in an aggressive, commission-based retail environment was unpleasant for me in a lot of ways, but it also exposed me to great ways of connecting with various types of interesting and sometimes lovely people. To their credit, the store employed a diverse blend of mostly women across wide age ranges (easily 18-80), ethnicities, cultural identities, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, along with gay men and trans people, and the like. Company policy, naturally driven by sales reach in an historically progressive city, promoted making reasonable accommodations for unusual requests. While the atmosphere reflected a cisgender heteronormative landscape, truly all were welcome to indulge in affordable fashion trends. The arrangement was far from perfect, but it was something.
Afterthought: I accept (and often promote) that sex and intimacy can be mutually exclusive from each other for a healthy exchange of either, but the best way for that to happen is with open, honest communication. Part of what was especially damaging for me about Magnolia locking up sexually with me, but not anybody else, was in her inability to express that her anxiety stemmed from problems with trust and intimacy, problems long ago seeded. She thought she communicated this in a way that made the eventual outcome of our coupling visible far ahead as an inevitability. I’m now emotionally literate enough to agree with that point of view. I guess there’s another take, though. She stopped having sex with me and started doing it with other people as a way of saying, clearly, that it was over between us. But I don’t believe she was that calculating about it. She seemed too confused about her actions and desires, and I really don’t think she wanted to hurt me so much, but in a way it’s good that she did. The experience made me more self-aware.