My grandparents survived the Shoah. I grew up hearing bits and pieces of their past, but for the most part they tried to shield us kids from the details. We lived comfortable, blessed lives, and yet the one thing that they couldn’t shield us from was what I call “the hum.” The best way that I can explain the hum is that it is this underlying buzz of muted anxiety, rarely discussed, but ever-present. My grandmother, who has lived in Canada for 60 years, still needs to be cajoled into putting on her seat belt every time she gets into a car, and when she sits in a chair, she sits on the edge, readying herself to jump up if need be. The Gestapo isn’t coming. She knows that. We all know that… but the thought of being stuck, unable to escape at a moment’s notice is unbearable to her. That anxiety is always there; it’s the hum.
Cheryl Wunch, Evanston, IL
At simchas, we are fun-loving and carefree, dancing wildly to Latino beats, but don’t let that hip-shaking fool you one bit. We are a neurotic, anxiety-ridden bunch of Cuban refugees.
My grandparents came to Havana in the 1920s and 1930s from Warsaw and a village near Pinsk that was Russian or Polish, depending on the day. They fled virulent anti-Semitism, conscription and poverty to start a new life in the Caribbean. Mom, her sister and her cousins were raised by hardworking immigrants who provided them with happy lives in a temperate climate. However, they were waiting, as we Jews seem to do, for the next disaster. It came to them in 1959 in the form of Fidel and the ideology he brought to the island. My parents’ generation fled to the U.S., leaving behind everything, often including parents and siblings. My sister and I were raised to fear Fidel, communism and much more.
I recently became a yoga teacher, studying breathing and relaxation techniques, applying them to myself and my students. After all, I cannot stop Fidel, terrorism or hurricanes. I can only try to slow my racing heartbeat and impending panic attacks with pranayama, a backup prescription of Xanax and letting loose to the rhythm of salsa.
Miriam Bradman Abrahams, Woodmere, NY
When I think about anxiety, I think about my grandmother. When I was a teenager, she confided in me that everything really bad in her life she had never worried about, and all the bad things she did worry about never occurred. At the time, I thought her anxiety had prevented her from living life; she never remarried, she never learned to drive and she was always worried about my mom. Thus, I took her comment to mean that being anxious was bitterness for all the time she had wasted. However, my grandmother’s comments were like the Torah, and in the re-reading (and maybe even with a little wisdom), I now believe that she was not complaining, but was telling me to live life and not let anxiety control it.
Todd Waldman, Virginia Beach, VA
As a child, I didn’t know the word “anxiety,” but I knew that my mom was full of worries. She worried about what we were eating, whether we had slept enough and whether our homework was done. Her worry was contagious. I agonized over every wrong answer on my history test and wondered endlessly if I’d ever succeed at anything. I vowed that no matter what, when I became a mom, I would never subject my children to the overprotected childhood I had endured. I was going to be a carefree parent—the kind who let everyone traipse over the beige carpeting with dirty shoes on and didn’t care if her kids played in the snow without gloves and a scarf. Fast forward about 20 years. It’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m rocking my week-old son to sleep in our dark living room. In the few days since he’s been home, I’ve called the doctor three times with questions and consulted ten different parenting websites to find out if I’m bathing him properly. It’s clear that I’ve inherited a little of my mother’s worried streak. But it’s also clear to me now why she worried as much as she did—she probably felt the overwhelming desire to protect me that I now feel toward my little boy.
The realities of my anxiety-driven “drug problems” and an abortive college career constitute an “elephant in the room” in and of themselves. When combined with my criminal record of seven felonies and six misdemeanors, I become an “elephant man,” something barely recognizable to an ultra-liberal, highly educated upper-middle-class Jewish family.
The anxiety attacks begin when I get out of bed. How many I will have during a given day depends on a number of factors: how long the day will be, the number of tasks to be completed, the relative importance of completing these tasks properly, and whether I have to drive or not. If I need to drive, I limit my dose of clonazepam to an amount that will hold off withdrawal symptoms without impairing my motor skills and reaction time. This dosage does little or nothing to lower my anxiety level.
While I can still speak openly with my mother and father, and gratefully accept their seemingly infinite capacity for forgiveness and generosity, and communicate with a similar candor with one sympathetic aunt, I rarely see or hear from the rest of the family, immediate and extended. On the rare occasions when I find myself in contact with any of them, no one speaks to me or questions me about these things, and I volunteer nothing; it’s “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The elephant is in the room.
Dan Mage, Oakland, CA