It occurred to me the other day how unpleasant I can make life for myself when I’m in a fit of worrying. I don’t like worrying, I don’t even really approve of it, as it is such a waste of mental and emotional energy. But nevertheless worry can sneak up on me, and I will catch myself in the act of having a furious fret about something, as if I had suddenly tuned in to a different mental wavelength where unbeknownst to me, anxiety had pirated the airwaves. And worry is such an amplifier; I’ve rarely ever known it to shrink a problem or soothe me. But we never do things unless there is some advantage to them. Worry must have its upside, its pressing reasons for nagging at us. Worry makes obstacles and problems big so that we can’t sink into indifference about them. It’s an early warning system set on a hair trigger that’s hard to turn off. Worry really wants us to take action, and yet by filling our minds and draining our energies, it also keeps us passively chained to the spot. It’s a paradox.
So what do I know about worry? Well, I know it’s a crazy, already-failed attempt to control the future. Worry is one way of imagining who we might be if we were forced to lose precious or important things. It’s a way to imagine what we might look like if disaster struck, as well as a subversive form of magical thinking: If I worry enough, it may never happen. Sometimes I think worry is a form of ongoing, and unkind, self-policing. If I worry sufficiently about something to give myself a very unpleasant experience, I certainly won’t put myself in that position again. I’ll avoid it in future. Once we’ve got the lizard brain involved in a process of mental reckoning, it’s rather like handing a freshly sharpened sword to Attila the Hun. The lizard brain is the ancient realm of fight or flight, and because its business is survival, its method is to bully you relentlessly until you give in and do what it wants. The lizard brain feels no shame; if it’s wrong nine times out of ten, and the rustle in the bushes turns out to be a bird not a tiger, it has no compunction about sounding the alarm on the tenth occasion. That droning quality of worry, its armour-plating against reason and reality, its drilling insistence in one’s head, all this bears the hallmark of the lizard brain that gains in power what it lacks in sophistication.
And yet, I can’t help but feel that essentially, worry is the province of the risk-averse. Or at least, we worry about things that we can’t bear to risk, for whatever reason that may be. Once we’ve risked something and found it to be elastic, or regenerative, or more reliable than we thought, then we stop worrying about it. For instance, the first time that Mister Litlove was made redundant, I worried a lot about money. But the second time I didn’t worry at all. We’d survived before, and without too much trouble; we knew that we could live on quite a small amount of money, if we were careful, and so there was no longer, in my mind, anything to worry about. People who were tearaways or rebels in teenage years don’t tend to be big worriers in later life. They’ve already experimented with throwing things away, like love and security and safety, and made it through all right. It was those of us who did what we were told, and never caused our parents worry who end up, ironically, the worriers in middle age.
A different order of problem arrives, though, if we’ve risked something and lost it. Fear of reliving a past trauma or catastrophe accounts for a great deal of the uncontrollable worrying we put ourselves through, and the kind of anxiety that is about something perfectly understandable, but blown out of all proportion. In all honesty there’s only one thing I really worry about (okay, inevitably I worry about my son, so, two things) and that’s my health. I can’t quite believe what a hypochondriac I’ve turned into. But after years and years of chronic fatigue, I can’t quite bear for there to be anything more wrong with me. I know that most people never recover from chronic fatigue, so I’ve done pretty well. But my health now feels precarious; my experience is of my body letting me down, not pulling me through. I feel as if I’ve earned myself years of perfect health, but of course that’s not a deal I can broker. Plus, if I’d known back in 1997 that all those strange illnesses I was suffering from, those odd health issues I was encountering, were about to cause me a decade of ill health, I’d have done something much sooner. I just figured I’d be okay in the end. The wisdom of hindsight is as usual a dreadful burden to bear. The least little thing wrong with me now and I’m all on edge: what will this turn into? Should I do something about it?
If there’s one image that sums up worry for me, it’s that line from the bible, ‘a cloud no bigger than a man’s fist’. It’s the first cloud in the sky before the great flood that puts Noah onto the ark. That’s what my worrying looks like: I’ve spotted a cloud, should I now prepare for the catastrophe? Whilst a flood is by no means the certain outcome of a small cloud, it’s rarely possible to rule it out altogether before the rain starts to fall. Perhaps what it boils down to in the end is the acknowledgement that life can turn on a dime, and some people have a better relationship to that proposition than others. Me, I’m not great with the random unpredictability of existence. But there are two thoughts I try to hang onto, like rubber rings. The first is that whilst worry can make us feel as vulnerable and resourceless as children, as an adult, I am not particularly either of those (or at least not all the time). And the second is that good things often come out of bad events. We are unfortunate indeed if a catastrophe has nothing to offer us in the way of experience, knowledge and unexpected support. Even if it was a long and rocky road, chronic fatigue changed many things in my life for the better, and not least, it showed me how sensible it is to cut oneself a break from time to time. It’s out of that kindness to myself that I want to nip at least some of those pesky worries in the bud.