On Thursday, I will turn 43. When I was a kid back in North Carolina, I was sure I wouldn’t make it to 25. I saw death around every corner, but especially in every road trip with my father, in every new relationship my mother entered, in every thunderstorm that bloomed overhead.
It wasn’t because I had any sort of terminal disease like my little brother does (I’ll call him Little A). Born 11 years and three days after I was, Little A has spent his 31 (soon to be 32) years trying to outlast a terrifying life expectancy thanks to the mutated Cystic Fibrosis genes gifted to him by my father and stepmother. I do have a chronic disease, which used to be called Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis (JRA) but is now more commonly called Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA). Idiopathic as in “a disease with no known cause,” as in Juvenile We-Don’t-Know-How-the-Fuck-a-Child-Ends-Up-Here Arthritis; I like JRA better. JRA technically can be life-threatening; there is a form of it that can irreversibly damage internal organs. But that’s not what I have (I say “have” because JRA doesn’t go away, nor does it grow up and become RA—it just is, even if it’s in remission, which mine mostly is, but the damage was done long ago). The point—if there is one—is that while my JRA was scary and sometimes gave me mild fevers and achy bones and made my parents keep me inside and inactive more than it should have (to mitigate joint damage, activity is essential, but 40 years ago, they didn’t know that and practically bubble wrapped JRA kids), it wasn’t likely to kill me, at least not back then.
As for thunderstorms, the fear there was mostly of tornadoes, which pretty much never happen in Western North Carolina (even though we had tornado drills in school), but that didn’t matter. Once I knew tornadoes were a thing and actually experienced a tornado warning in Denver the summer I was seven, every thunderstorm meant tornado and every tornado meant death and no one would do tornado drills with me at home. And if tornadoes weren’t enough, there was lightning. I counted meticulously between every flash and the crack of thunder that followed. I obsessed over whether we really did have lightning rods on our roof. My guts roiled when my father wouldn’t turn off the TV or answered the phone during a storm. I insisted we find shelter when my mother and one of her boyfriends (I think his name was Vince?) took us hiking directly into a black cloud in Black Mountain (“us” being me and my middle brother, three years younger than I am, with the same mother and father but often looking like we have neither parent in common; I’ll call him Middle E). I hadn’t wanted to go and cried when they made us go anyway even though the darkness forming ahead of us was plain to see when we started and on top of us when we were too far to turn back. Soaked and shivering, we huddled under a rock outcrop, a spot far enough off the trail that I imagined our bodies might never be found.
I realize as I’m typing this that my fear on those road trips leads back to storms too. I would scan all around us for gray clouds. My father was a long-haul trucker (no, this is not the start of a country song) and so was used to handling all kinds of terrain in all kinds of weather, but my six- to 16-year-old muscles seized up at his aggressive driving even under clear skies, so you can imagine the knots I tied my arthritic self into when he insisted on never pulling over no matter how heavy the rain got or how strong the wind blew or how few One-Mississippi’s there were between the lightning and thunder. It’s more dangerous to pull over, he’d say. Something about other drivers not seeing you on the side of the road and slamming into you.
But the other thing that happened on those road trips—aside from the knowledge that I was trapped for days at a time playing happy family with my lightning-tempered father and ostrich-headed stepmother and brothers-just-being-brothers, even once we escaped the confines of the car—was that it seemed like we always managed to pass the mangled aftermath of a fatal accident on our way to and from wherever we were going. The flashing lights and charcoal tire marks and leftover scraps of metal reminding me—in non-living color—what it would look like to not escape the confines of the car.
Also, my father never failed at some point during every trip to get enraged at the traffic on the interstate and turn off onto some forsaken country road where the passing lanes are few and far between and we’d get stuck behind some “slow fucking asshole” or “this motherfucker,” and he’d drive us headlong into the opposite lane with seconds to spare to get back into the right lane. And at least once he nearly drove us head-on into a tractor trailer and had to veer off onto the opposite shoulder.
The thing about my mom’s relationships is more metaphorical death than physical, though there’s an element of both. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that it felt like she always put the men in her life above her children (which she did). When she was deep in a relationship, which was pretty much as soon as she started one, or just deep in fucking some guy in the middle of the afternoon when we were not long home from school or in the middle of the night in the middle of the living room, which happened more than I care to think about, there was no room for me and my brother. Those were the moments (and hours and even days)—and there were many of them—when I knew that if something truly awful happened, I was on my own. Or rather, we—Middle E and I—were on my own.
Those childhood fears manifest differently now. I’m no longer afraid of thunderstorms—I actually kind of love them. Car rides can be anxiety-inducing, especially in the rain, but I think that’s relatively normal. My father can’t hurt me anymore, and I don’t let my mother. I’m terrified every time I get on a plane that I might not get off, but even that one, I’m getting better about. Instead, I’ve transitioned into health anxiety (previously referred to as hypochondria, but apparently that diagnosis has been retired by the DSM-5). This is obviously a joy for my wife. Are you sure I’m OK? is a common refrain in our household, followed by Kim’s mostly patient, Yes, babe, you’re fine. I promise.
When I had rainbows on my face from a forehead injury in late September, I was sure they’d missed something on the CT scan, that I had an undiagnosed depressed skull fracture, that I had a growing intracranial hematoma, that I was the next Natasha Richardson (you may have guessed furious symptom Googling doesn’t help anything except my fear vocabulary since everything looks like a potentially life-threatening emergency to a search engine). When I had my first panic attack in December of 2012, I was sure for months it was an undiagnosed pulmonary embolism because the ER doctor said it could be (that’s a story for another time, but I think it’s fair to say he was kind of a dick). When I saw my GP the next day, he assured me it was not a blood clot in my lungs but anxiety (not “just anxiety,” by the way—never ever tell someone it’s “just anxiety”) with a side of my more familiar depression, and he worked with me generously to come out the other side. It took nearly a year, and in spite of his reassurances that anxiety is very real with real physical indications, I was terrified that the pain in my chest and the cold spasms needling up my spine and the lightheadedness that accompanied them were signs I was having a heart attack or a stroke or that the phantom embolism had burst. I’ve learned from my therapist that health anxiety generally and fear of death more specifically are common among survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I think she said it has something to do with being afraid of lack of control over your body after that control has been taken away from you so traumatically so early in life. It doesn’t help that my mother, also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, has her own health anxiety that she’s not afraid to spread around (hooray for perpetuating cycles).
Of course, when I was a kid, I didn’t consciously connect my fear of thunderstorms, road trips with my father, and my mother’s parade of strange men with my certainty that I’d barely make it into my 20s, but now that I’m ostensibly a grownup and nearly 18 years past the arbitrary year I was so certain I wouldn’t see, it all feels tied together, at the very least to make this a nominally cohesive blog post. I see now it’s all part of the constant worry about all the things in my childhood over which I had no control and that could so easily have destroyed me. But they didn’t. I won’t let them.
Happy birthday to me (Kinehora!),
Jessica the Westchesbian
Jessica lives with her shiksa wife and geriatric cat in picturesque Tarrytown on the Hudson. Although a proud Westchesbian these days, Jessica grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, back when the opening of the Olive Garden and the 24-hour Walmart were big news. During business hours, Jessica’s a communications professional who translates highly technical concepts into clear, concise, colloquial language that media buyers and sellers can understand. Outside of business hours, she’s a poet, cat mom, wife, avid reader, and lover of questionable crime, sci-fi, and supernatural TV shows (preferably all in one), not necessarily in that order. Her poetry has appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, LIT, and The Huffington Post, among others.