Matilda, Mara Wilson, and Me

I started out writing this as a review for my book blog, but it turned into (1) a pretty personal post that is also (2) not at all a review. I know I have severe anxiety, but I hadn’t realized how many specific things I would have in common with Wilson. Not being in a great place lately, I am much less articulate than usual, and I’ve had this draft sitting for close to two weeks while I figure out what to say; so I decided the best way to express what I felt is just to quote everything that stuck out to me while I was reading.

Thoughts would pop into my head sometimes, and I didn’t understand why. They were bad thoughts, about people getting hurt or embarrassed . . .

Out of nowhere I would think of something horrific, and it would be so intense and detailed, so much scarier than the horror movies I was too scared to watch, it would leave me shaking. These waking nightmares always seemed to be about the people I loved most.

I don’t know how far back it started, but the first time I remember sobbing alone in my bedroom because I couldn’t stop imagining my youngest brother (seven at the time) getting hit by a car was in ninth grade. I often get freaked out walking down stairs, because I’ll imagine myself falling and snapping my neck. I can’t delete even the most mundane voicemails from Mike because I worry that I wouldn’t have any recordings of his voice if he died. Etc. I am actually not a worrier, usually, and I’m a germophobe’s nightmare. This is a very specific kind of fear that should be unusual for me.

The first time I got an answer wrong on a spelling test, I started to cry, and [my teacher] pulled me aside. “You know,” she said gently, “it’s okay to make a mistake.” I nodded until the encounter was over, then shook my head. I knew it wasn’t.

I had the same encounter in fourth grade.

“You don’t need to write so hard,” [my tutor] said once, noticing I already had a writer’s callus on my middle finger at age seven.

I’ve always had one. I didn’t know until reading this that it was a thing (although of course, since I’m not a K-12 student in the 90s anymore, I do much less writing and the callus has gotten much smaller).

My friends would talk about getting songs stuck in their heads, and I knew what they meant; I had “It’s Raining Men” stuck in my head for most of my preteen years. It wasn’t just songs in mine, though: words, phrases, names, and quotes all seemed to get stuck, too . . . They didn’t bother me so much, just stuck around like background noise that would come to my attention now and then, like when you suddenly notice a clock ticking.

This is a really big one for me, and I’ve never known that this was a problem other people deal with. I react really aggressively when I hear a song that gets stuck in my head, because it is so impossibly difficult to get rid of it once it’s in there. Even just mentioning Sara Bareilles, while listening to other music as I type, I am struggling not to let my brain start hearing the song that plagued me absolutely incessantly after I heard it once on the radio. I wouldn’t even let Mike listen to the similar-sounding Katy Perry song for over a year, because the risk was just too great.

It happens with words and phrases, too. Today I checked out a book called They May Not Mean To, But They Do, and walking out to my car after work, I found myself repeating the title over and over in time with my footsteps. Words can get stuck in my head even without a tune, particularly if they have a catchy rhythm.

Possibly worst in this category is the fact that certain conversations from various points in my past are just frozen in my head, popping up randomly or whenever I think of something related to it. It’s like there are thought grooves dug in my brain, and whenever I touch one of those ideas, my thoughts can’t help but fall into the same groove. Specific childhood arguments with my parents, a particular criticism I received from a teacher, a fight I had with my sister; and no matter how many years it’s been, I feel the emotions again almost as strongly as when it happened.

A few years ago, for a slightly silly example, I told someone at workthe head of a different departmentabout how messy the library shelves were, because we’d been so busy all summer long we hadn’t had time to shelf read. She responded a little condescendingly, “That’s why you’re supposed to do it as you go.” I was still relatively new to the library at that time, and I don’t do well with even that minor level of conflict, so I didn’t say anything. But now practically every time I shelve, I replay that conversation in my head, frustrated that I hadn’t pointed out how we were severely understaffed and so far behind that it was all we could do to get books out of the workroom—or at least just said, childishly, “That’s easy for you to say.”

I would tap out syllables of songs or quotes on my fingers repeatedly, until the last one landed on my pinkie, but it wouldn’t make me physically uncomfortable if I couldn’t.

Ever since my keyboarding class in junior high, I’ve done a thing where I tap, in the air or on a table, whatever I’m hearing. If I’m having a conversation, I tap out the words on an invisible keyboard. If I’m listening to music, I play the tune on an invisible piano. I don’t do it on purpose, or for funit’s a subconscious thing, and the only time I really notice it is if the music doesn’t line up properly to end on my pinkie; then it bothers me and I try to redo it so it works.

In sixth grade I spent a lot of time alone, racked with panic, crying in bathroom stalls.

It was eighth grade for me, because that’s when I started having orthodontist appointments during the day. If it was early enough that I had to go back to school afterward, I couldn’t bear to walk into my classroom and have everyone look at me, so I would sit in the bathroom instead until the class ended, trying to work up the courage. I think this is different from Mara Wilson’s issue, but spending a lot of time holed up in bathroom stalls is definitely something I understand. Also, in elementary school, I was almost always late to class. I was so mortified about walking in late that I would wait outside the door until they did the pledge of allegiance, then walk in, stoop to “tie my shoe” until they were done, and then sit down with the rest of them. I tried to believe that no one noticed me doing this.

I hadn’t been a good student for years. I got distracted by my own thoughts, and gave up too readily. Being smart felt like all I had, and if I couldn’t get something right the first time, everyone would know I wasn’t. If I couldn’t do it perfectly, I didn’t see the point of doing it at all.

I actually wasn’t a good student in high school or college, though I got decent grades because I was smart. I was in Gifted and Talented programs from second grade through high school, and all my friends in high school were the “smart kids.” Math was traumatizing for me then, because we were in the same AP classes in every other subject, but when they were taking calculus, I was struggling with pre-algebra. I was mortified anytime math class came up, so embarrassed for them to know that I wasn’t as smart as they were. Being smart was the only thing I had going for me, and I had impostor syndrome hardcore.

The kind of headache that comes from crying too much can’t be helped by Advil.

I have had chronic headaches my entire life, and I found out only a few years ago that I also have migraines. I know many types of headaches, and this is one of the worst.

[Mara] means ‘of eternal beauty’ in Gaelic, but my parents named me the Hebrew one, which means ‘bitter.’ Being bitter was my birthright.

My first name is Miri, also Hebrew, also meaning “bitter.” My siblings all have Hebrew names, and theirs are lovely and significant. Bitter was my birthright, too, and I did not appreciate it.

The ones who scared me, who still scare me, are the girls who see all other girls as competition, who see themselves as the persecuted ones, the ones whom the pretty and popular girls hate. When you believe you’re persecuted, you will believe anything you do is justified.

That last line! This quote doesn’t fit with any of the others; it’s just such an astute observation that I think applies to all humanity. In the United States in particular, this is an issue, with Christians and “Men’s Rights Activists” abusing everyone who dares to suggest that they stop dominating the rest of us. It’s the same with religious fanaticism; no one is as terrifying as a person who believes God is directing them.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jan Hicks says:

    This book sounds really interesting. I have mild anxiety, I recognised some things that I did as a teenager, and some things that I do as an adult from your quotes. My anxiety is mostly controllable, though. I can talk myself through it, and toilet stall lock ins while having a panic attack are rare these days. I’ve even managed to let myself have a panic attack in front of other people, because other people can only support you if they know you’re struggling. I’m lucky to know supportive people who get it. It takes time. I had a breakdown a decade ago, which forced me to be honest with myself and others about my anxiety.

    Thanks for writing this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gwen says:

      Thanks, Jan. That is something I’ve been trying to do recently, too – to let people know when I’m struggling. It is so difficult for me, makes me feel so vulnerable. But you’re right, it’s necessary.

      Liked by 1 person

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