Caring for a parent, Dementia, Self-care

The Burden of Anxiety

“I’m anxious to see you,” Mama told a friend on the phone the other day. It’s a word she has always used to mean both uneasy and excited, but it’s been since living with her I have realized I don’t like the connotation that all of life is anxious. I’ve begun stopping as I’m speaking to remind myself to say “eager,” the positive word, instead. As I learn to find the right word, I realize it’s the accurate word. “Anxious” almost never applies to what I’m feeling.

I have thought the use of “anxious” (which she pronounces “an-chus”) fits Mama’s personality; she is an anxious person. Maybe I inherited my father’s genes in the anxiety vs eager DNA; I never knew him to be an anxious person. So I’m stunned as I read my father’s war-time letters to discover that he used anxious for eager as well! Intrigued, I looked up the etiology of the two words: “The discovery that ‘anxious’ should not be used to mean ‘eager’ seems to have been made in the U.S. in the early 20th century.” I guess the usage was the custom of the day, and has nothing to do with personality. I’m out to jump into the 21st century and make the shift my parents clearly missed.

I’m often astounded by the things Mama worries about. Two years ago, we had a favorite crazy conversation. Mama had told me about an award the Friends of Seminary Hill Natural Area received. The president thought my mother, as chief instigator of the effort to preserve and protect 56 acres of the forested hill we live on, should have it.

“Where is it?” I ask.

“It’s in a box on a closet shelf. I would like to display it, but I’m afraid it might get broken in stormy weather.”

“Is it for outside?” I ask, a little confused.

“No, but it has glass on it.”

“I don’t understand why a storm would endanger it.”

“The wind can blow really hard,” she says, a bit exasperated with my obtuseness. “I’m afraid if I put it out it would get broken if a branch falls.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, really confused now. “I’m still not getting how that would be a problem if it’s inside the house.”

Tersely she says, “If I put it on the table in the corner of the dining room, and there is a storm and a large tree limb falls on the corner of the roof over the table and comes through, the glass would get broken. I want you to get it out so I can return it.”

“Oh,” I say. I might also have said, “That’s nuts.”

Mama moves between clarity and understanding, and fabrication and faulty memory. Usually her anxieties are contrived, as if she doesn’t know how to convince herself she is still among the living if she isn’t worrying about something. She’s eating too much (she weighs 80 pounds), she exercises too much/not enough, she drinks too much water/not enough, it’s too late to plant annuals, she has stomach cancer. As if she hasn’t enough of her own worries, she projects her own anxieties onto other people and worries about them. Oddly, she has never worried about ulcers.

Going along with what she comes up with requires practice. I try to nod and mumble something like, “That must be hard,” or “How can I help?” when what I really mean is “It must be so hard to be you.” More often I say something unhelpful like, “You worry more than anyone I’ve ever known.”

Telling her not to worry isn’t helpful; it’s in her DNA. Trying to figure out the root of her worry and how I can help sometimes relieves her anxiety a bit. Knowing she is going to worry regardless of reality or my interventions helps me. It is not my job to keep her from worrying, but to make sure she has nothing to worry about. Two very different goals.

If I were a worrier, I would be in a panic about how I am going to continue to play this role indefinitely; and how I will continue to live when Mama is gone, mostly financially, but also without the purpose that has consumed me for nearly three years now. I want to be a published writer, I could worry about my ability to make that happen. I want to turn the property into a business venture, but I have doubt about my ability to make that happen, and I could consume myself with worry over it. But how would that be helpful?

I read this recently about making art, and I figure life is art; it helps me not to be anxious about the future.

Making art means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward.

        —David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear: On the
Perils and Rewards of Artmaking

And so I live day to day. To worry about tomorrow is to waste today. By observing the burden of my mother’s anxiety, I learn this last lesson from her: how I don’t want to be. As she searches for things to worry about, I search for “a quiet mind and a serene spirit.” I find it in the garden where she told me nothing would grow. What is nurtured will grow, I figure. And I ask myself, “Am I nurturing anxiety or eagerness?”

Life is always too short.
We will never be able to see
everything we wanted to see,
do all the things we wanted to do,
or achieve all the successes
we thought so important.

But to arrive at a quiet mind,
and a serene spirit,
is the supreme accomplishment.
If we do this,
we have done all…

William Martin, The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life


7 thoughts on “The Burden of Anxiety”

  1. Gretchen, i think we grew up hearing our parents use the word anxious for eager, and many of us probably use it incorrectly without thinking about being worried, but I am glad you have written this post to call our attention to the correct usage of these two words. I’m going to try to catch myself if I say I’m anxious when i mean eager! I will remember you in your challenge to elicit more positive responses from your mother and to carry on / bear up when you don’t. And never give up on the “quiet mind” and “serene spirit”.


  2. From Cathy F.
    We learn so much about ourselves when we care for parents so aged, Gretchen. My last 3 years with my dad were a revelation. From 97 to 101. And nothing killed him, but age.

    I remember changing my usage from anxious to eager. But almost no one uses this correctly. For me it’s accuracy, not correctness. And. I one notices. If anything, they think we’re a little stilted. (Smile)

    Your project is a big one. Whether you find a publisher or not, it’s worth doing. A friend (who’s a published poet) told me, you can’t worry about what gets accepted or rejected. That may depend on what the Ed. had for breakfast, or who she slept with last night. It’s just irrelevant.

    I am waiting for my mss. to be delivered to an agent or two in NYC where he used to work as an editor. I’m not holding my breath. And ultimately, I’m fine with publishing it on Amazon after I think it’s in perfect shape. I’m very anxious about that! No. Eager.

    Keep on, keeping on. Maybe we can get together in the summer.



  3. Much thought prompted by this well written exploration. As you can imagine I thought of some good reservoir conversation in here, especially the last quote.

    Having a daughter with definite anxiety disorder and a wife who worries most of the time about things she cares about yet would never describe herself as a chronic worrier, although she’s admitted it a time or two over the years, I have a great appreciation for the burden that anxiety brings to life – in the new definition not the old one. My own anxieties tend to be tied only to very specific things – mostly my own screw-ups, or potential screw-ups to things I’ve done that may sabotage some current or future consequence due to my procrastination or ADD tendencies. Otherwise I live in the moment enough and am naturally optimistic enough that I tend to live eagerly. Curiousity is the driving force of my life and it is that that carries me through even the dark times. “Isn’t this fascinating as it unfolds?” “I wonder how this will turn out?” Sounds a little sociopathic I suppose, but thankfully I’ve no doubt of my ability to love.

    I recently ran across this quote on the “Begin with Yes” Facebook page (which I highly recommend).

    “As we take steps in new directions, we can expect all kinds of feelings that slow us down or even stop us in our tracks. One of those feelings is fear. A while ago, I discovered something very interesting about being afraid. Often what I thought was fear was actually (at least in part) excitement! And it’s a lot more fun to be excited than it is to be afraid!”

    I would also recommend a reading of the complete Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Neibhur which is much longer than the usual platitude version and which directly addresses the notion of living in the moment and accepting grace. It has a very interesting phrase, “let me be sufficiently happy in this life”.

    Love your writing and your thinking as usual 🙂


    1. Thank you, Marc. And speaking of “Begin with Yes,” I note now that my mother pretty consistently begins her days with “No.” She may get to some sort of yes, with my encouragement (and my refusal to let her “no” change my day from “yes”), but it is not where she begins. It’s sad, really. I pray that isn’t a given in old age.


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