I’m an anxious person. It started when I was a teenager and got worse through college. Those days, it was mostly limited to the stress of school, making money, trying to figure out what to do with my life.
Things took a pretty sharp turn on September 11, 2001, when I spent that morning across the street from the World Trade Center1. Suddenly, I found myself afraid to fly, ride the subway, hang out in crowded areas. Work stress gave me more anxiety than ever. Relationship issues magnified. I had several panic attacks. Travel was difficult, sleeping was difficult, everything was difficult.
Sixteen years or so later, I’m still an anxious person, though I’ve been able to overcome much of the more debilitating aspects. Travel is still difficult, but I do it. Crowds still often give me pause, but I push through.
Many things in life are uncontrollable. Being worried about every possible horrible outcome isn’t helpful, of course. People love to tell me the universe isn’t out to get me. Why stress when you can’t do anything about it anyway? Things happen. You can’t control everything. You have to relax and trust the odds. These are things I already know. Anxiety isn’t about logic or reason—your brain ignores reality and puts you in a mental cage. There’s no simple solution. It’s a daily struggle, but understanding how anxiety works—and what triggers it—goes a long way toward helping manage the situation.
That said, it’s hard not to let anxiety reign while raising small children. Surely even non-anxious people are often overrun with fear when taking care of an infant. The night after Oliver was born—the first night we had him home—while he slept peacefully in a bassinet, I lay on the edge of our bed, my hand outstretched and resting on his chest, continually monitoring his breath and heartbeat. Though my fears that night were not completely irrational, I did find myself able to cope with the reality of his existence and fragility rather quickly. Long-term, it’s the little things, day-to-day, that end up being the hardest to deal with.
As children grow they become mobile, and that mobility greatly increases danger. When Oliver was swaddled, held, or laying on his back, the greater world was mostly innocuous. But when he learned to crawl, the scale of his world changed instantly. Learning to walk presented danger at a near-limitless scale. Then there was the first time we dropped him off at preschool, the first time he was going to be alone in someone else’s care for more than just a few minutes. Each of these scenarios added another layer of concern which I attempted at every turn to swallow and ignore.
Impacting yourself with choices made based on anxiety can certainly do damage to your social life, psychological well-being and career prospects. But allowing your anxiety to influence how your child is allowed to interact with the world can greatly impact their ability to learn, grow and experience life. It’s one thing for me to make bad decisions for myself—I didn’t want to allow my anxiety to limit Oliver’s life. Even still, especially at first, taking him to the park or to play spaces was extremely stressful. I was constantly fearful for his safety, standing right beside him, guiding his every move and experience. While I knew it was a problem, mentally I could always justify the actions given he wasn’t getting hurt.
This is the worst part about anxiety. It illogically reinforces itself over and over. I’m keeping him safe, I’d think. Without me shadowing him, he could fall and hit his head. Taking him to the park without injury would reinforce my behavior. See, it works. The cycle would continue, but Oliver was never free to run around and just be a kid. Anxiety is there, in the background, justifying my decisions and protection everywhere we go.
And then it happens at home.
We had just finished dinner and it was time for bed, which meant the kids were, as usual, fighting us every step of the way. I was working on convincing Nolan it was time to head upstairs to brush his teeth and Stacey was discussing bedtime clothing choices with Oliver. Grabbing a glass of water from the kitchen, I heard Oliver agree to wear shorts and a tee shirt and the tussling of his dirty outfit coming off. Then a very hard slam.
When kids scrape their knees or cut their fingers or twist their ankles, they’re very vocal about it immediately. We’ve come to recognize when our kids get hurt and start crying right away, generally, it’s not a big deal. It’s the silence that scares you. The space between impact and expression, the long wind-up, the out-of-breath-about-to-explode silence. The moment before all hell breaks loose. We haven’t had too many of these moments, thankfully.
A moment after the slam, Oliver screamed. Then Stacey screamed. Stacey doesn’t scream. She’s calm and collected. She doesn’t tend to get anxious and she knows how to handle herself when something goes wrong. But she looked at Oliver and screamed. I ran to Oliver and picked him up. He was crying and yelling, “I’m okay, mama! I’m okay!” while a trickle of blood ran down his face. Oliver had never seen Stacey so worried about an accident and he needed her to reassure him he was okay. The best way, he figured, was just to tell her himself. “I just fell, I’m okay!” he yelled as I carried him upstairs and sat him on the bathroom counter.
I grabbed a towel and put pressure on the puncture wound just above his right eyebrow. As the intensity of the moment came down—he was alert and talking to me, he hadn’t lost consciousness and there wasn’t too much blood—I pulled back the towel got a really clear look at the wound. It was triangular and deeper than I would have thought possible in that part of the face. It wasn’t closing and the edges were a bit jagged. He needed stitches.
Everything that can go wrong with kids always goes wrong on weekends or after 6PM. It seems to be a rule of existence. If something has to happen, it will happen when pediatrician offices are closed. Oliver’s fall was after 7PM, of course, so we had to visit the emergency room. As Oliver patiently played Endless Numbers on an iPad, I occasionally dabbed the wound to sop up the small trickle of blood. By the time we got in to see a doctor two hours later, Oliver said he felt just fine and wanted to go home. The doctor took one look at the puncture and confirmed Oliver needed stitches.
How do you explain to a four year old he’s about to have a cotton swab pushed deep inside his open face wound but that it will only hurt for a few minutes because the doctor is applying anesthetic?
When the swab went in, it was hell. Oliver was screaming, writhing, begging me for help. I was trying to soothe him while holding him down—like some form of loving torture. He had gauze covering his eyes which only made the situation worse—like me, he’s claustrophobic—not being able to see my face while suffering this incredible pain was terrifying.
After two full minutes of anesthetic application, the doctor attempted the first stitch and, after successfully passing through one side of the wound, elicited a blood-curdling scream and twitch from Oliver when trying to pierce the flesh of the opposite side. Oliver’s sudden movement yanked the needle from the wound and blood started flowing out again. The doctor apologized and applied more anesthetic with another swab. Back in it went. Oliver screaming and begging again. Another two minutes of hell.
Finally, the stitches. One through both sides, tied. Oliver was trembling, on the verge of passing out from exhaustion and pain. Just one more stitch I told him, as he pleaded with me to just be done and go home and go to sleep. The doctor finally finished and I assured Oliver he was done. You did it! It’s over! He immediately relaxed upon hearing the ordeal was complete. He went limp, his breathing slowing to a normal pace.
Two stitches, a thousand dollars, hours in the hospital. A week of keeping the stitches dry. A visit to his pediatrician to remove the stitches and a goofy little scar above his eye that will probably be there his whole life. All because he slipped while trying to put on shorts and hit his head against molding on base of the banister at the foot of our stairs. An inch lower and he might have lost his eye.
I spend every day worried at parks and playgrounds and children’s gyms and grocery stores, then Oliver falls in our own house while getting dressed. One thing doesn’t rule out the other. The universe continues to show me my anxiety doesn’t prevent anything. Things happen. You can’t control everything. You have to relax and trust the odds. I know these things.
It’s a daily battle, but one I keep fighting.
I've written at length about September 11, 2001 in the past, but most of those posts have been lost to time or CMS moves, server issues, et cetera. In 2016, on the 15-year anniversary of 9/11, I posted a few thoughts to Twitter about my experience and how it shaped my life. At some point, I do plan to revisit this here at Karbon Based. ↩
Garrett is the Founder & Managing Director of Karbon, a mobile apps design and development agency located in Portland, Oregon. His current interests include mechanical keyboards, video games, technology and photography. He lives with his wife, two children, and three pets.