Our second annual Elephant in the Room Essay Contest—in partnership with the Andrew Kukes Foundation for Social Anxiety—seeks to lessen the stigma surrounding anxiety by encouraging discussion of this important topic. The winning essays, plus finalists and selected excerpts, appear below.
For most of my life, I refused to buy into the stereotype of the anxious, neurotic Jew—not because I thought it wasn’t true, but because I never thought it was a stereotype. To me, the Alexander Portnoys and Alvy Singers weren’t mere caricatures, but instead accurate portrayals of the fearful, obsessive-compulsive Hebrew for whom even the slightest discomfort was cause for panic. As I struggled from age 10 with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and through my teens and twenties with panic attacks, depictions on TV, in film and in literature of Jews overwhelmed by worry legitimized my own neuroses and partially freed me from the self-loathing I felt for being afraid most of the time.
But if the racing heart, hyperventilation and gastrointestinal distress were expressions of a condition whose seeds were deeply rooted in my cultural and biological heritage, I wondered why the biblical record was less honest than contemporary pop culture about this pernicious malady afflicting my people. Didn’t Abraham obsessively check to make sure his tent was locked before leaving for the land God promised to show him? Wasn’t Joseph convinced he was having a heart attack while trapped in the cistern? Didn’t Moses, drenched in flop sweat, consider canceling his audience with Pharaoh because he worried what would happen if the stick didn’t turn into a snake? And that spontaneously burning bush—how could Moses have been sure the fire was really out once he was done talking to God?
In my thirties, I grew tired of heart palpitations induced by drives that were more than 10 minutes from home and weeks of stomach cramps preceding airplane trips. I desperately searched for solutions in the self-help section of Barnes & Noble, on DVDs of guided meditations and breathing exercises, in psychiatrists’ offices and in prescription bottles. The pills and the breathing offered much-needed relief from the incessant feelings of abject fear, and the psychiatrists offered relief from the discomfort of sitting on a wallet that was too thick. But learning that anxiety is a result of an untamed mind, and not of a cultural predisposition, was what truly liberated me. I understood that I could overcome the condition that for so many years I’d treated like a Jewish curse, whose symptoms could only be mitigated by an affinity with neurotic fictional characters. I realized that anxiety wasn’t a Jewish thing, it was a human thing, and to celebrate it as a Jewish quirk was a disservice to the many who suffered from its sheer awfulness. Anxiety deserves no such respect, only the tenacious resolve to defeat it the way David bravely triumphed over Goliath, severing the giant’s head and then probably obsessively washing his hands.
“Is everything okay?!” For as long as I can remember, this has been my mother’s idea of a normal phone greeting. All the time. Every time. Which would make sense, had I conditioned her to respond thus by calling only for emergencies. But this is not the case; this catch-up call is routine.
Adrenals always on alert, she spirits me, against my will, into her covert world where anxiety rules, unacknowledged. She lives from the tacit, unsettling worldview of “Something must be wrong!” It’s an unconscious, yet integral part of her. Growing up, I was bathed in this undercurrent of nervous energy.
She came by it honestly, my mother. “Is everything okay?!” This was the alarmist greeting that met my Zayda when he’d dutifully call his wife from every port with a phone connection. Zayda, my mom’s father, captained a small freighter that navigated the rough waters of Lake Superior. His was a risky business. If he harbored the anxieties of the immigrant with a precarious livelihood, it didn’t show. In the course of his career, he risked his life numerous times to save others from certain death in those icy waters.
My grandmother, Meema, worried herself sick every time Zayda ventured out. Her coping strategy was to be the willing repository of worry. The irony, of course, is that if she didn’t have something to worry about, she’d create it. My mother, steeped in this toxic environment, dutifully followed suit.
In me, this translated into unwitting rebelliousness—a need to find a different approach to face the world. I recalled reading somewhere that on a particular personality inventory, relatively high scores for depression and paranoia for Americans were considered normal for Israelis. That there is a higher threshold in a place of real and constant danger made intuitive sense to me. If I was destined to live with anxiety, I wanted mine tangible. I’d meet it head-on—in Israel.
My mother phones: “Is everything okay?!” It’s January 1991. I’m walking around Jerusalem, gas mask in tow, awaiting the next Scud launch. Being in it was more manageable for me, as it had been for my Zayda before, and, ironically, less scary than for my mother thousands of miles away, her fear amplified—the unknown ever more menacing.
It was then that I found compassion for my mother. I wish she could experience what I’ve come to know: In moving toward those things we fear, fear dissipates. My life continues to confirm this. I now do my best to honestly confront those things that frighten me. In doing so, I leave a good chunk of the family fear legacy behind. My daughter phones. “Hi, honey,” I answer. And with that, perhaps a new legacy is begun.
Amy Bearmon is a writer trained in counseling psychology who lives with her family in the Seattle area.
I drive around in the manner a stalker would, making sure I am not the first car to arrive but certainly, positively, never the last. If I am late, I just won’t go in. I shouldn’t feel this nauseous, anxious feeling, with sweaty palms on the steering wheel. It is just Shabbat services. It is just Shabbat services, I tell myself again, an audible reminder that it will all be fine. I park my car and exhale deeply. One last check: No, my dress isn’t too short, no lipstick on my teeth, there is that one piece of unruly hair but I know I have a bobby pin somewhere. I rummage through my purse, breaking out in a cold sweat when I can’t find it. That’s it, get out of the car, I tell myself. I know that if I let it get to me, I will start up the engine and drive away.
Greetings are always pleasant, a hug and smile followed by “How are you?” I remind myself to use the word “well,” not the word “good.” “I am well, and yourself?” It rolls off my tongue perfectly rehearsed, followed by “Shabbat Shalom.” For a moment I feel like I have mastered the hardest part, if I can just find a seat and bury my nose in the bulletin.
I am not new to this temple. I know these people. But every Friday it’s the same struggle. An internal battle. I always tell myself that I am glad I went, and I believe it, until it is time to go again.
Social anxiety makes me feel like a “bad” Jew. I can’t always pull myself together to go or to get out of the car once I get there. I am not anti-social. I like people, and people like me, maybe because they don’t know how hard it is for me to sit and have a coffee with them at the Oneg. Maybe it is hard for them, too. Maybe they weren’t here last week because they drove away. But I know that probably isn’t the case.
Jews are a collective group, but somehow I always feel like an outsider. But I am still Jewish, even if I don’t make it to services or host Passover. I am still a Jew alone in my living room. And I need to remind myself and everyone of that when you haven’t seen me for a while.