This Is Anxiety

Meanwhile I'll continue to breathe through my abdomen.

Ariel
Oregon


I haven't gotten a haircut in more than a year-and-a half because the last time I did, I ended up telling the hairdresser that I was the caretaker for my 30-year-old mentally-challenged brother. This is a problem not only because of the uncomfortable over-share, but because I don't have a mentally-challenged 30-year-old brother.

Typically, I adopt the path of least resistance in every single social interaction. As a person who is constantly nervous, having a strategy is necessary for everything—especially casual encounters—but also because it tends to end the conversation as soon as possible. So, when someone assumes something about me, I just go with it. If I prolonged the conversation, that would mean talking longer, and the longer I talk, the more horrible it gets.

This began immediately after I met Rick, the bleach-blonde hairdresser in my hometown of Frederick, Maryland. He was very enthusiastic about life, despite being a hairdresser in the middle of farm country. When I sat down at his station he said I was "a blank canvas" which, I assume, is cosmetologist speak for "your hair is terrible we need to fix all of this."

As he got started in with a comb, he started asking me about myself, which I can usually handle. I rattled off the facts as he brought them up: college in Boston, studying writing, currently interested in magazine journalism.

“Oh, like for Cosmo?”  Rick asked, holding the comb over my head.

Even though it was obvious with my terrible hair, the acne puckered around my face, and the fact that Rick just had to explain to me the difference between a “cool blonde” and a “warm blonde”  that I wasn’t really into beauty and upkeep, Rick was hoping I was a Cosmo girl. The truth is, I would be more into the astrological sex positions than I would be into any of the fashion and make up in Cosmopolitan—that is, if I could get past the penis tips (“tips” in this case referring to helpful hints) long enough to even pick up a copy.

But the path of least resistance won out and I said, “Yeah, like for Cosmo!”

The exclamation point in my voice rounded out the new persona that had been carved out for me: future Cosmo writer with terrible hair. I could do this. This was working.

Things were going great. My highlights were being painted into my hair; the soft crinkle of aluminum foil filling up silences Rick and I just couldn’t keep up with. This is where I lost my focus: the key to the path of least resistance is quick thinking. Staying on top of the conversation was of the utmost importance. I had to treat the small-talk like it was a rabid dog about to eat my newborn child: if you let it get away from you, it is over.

“So, what are you doing over the summer?”  Rick asked me.

“Oh, not much,” I said. “My brother just had a baby, so I’ll be taking care of him.”

In my head, this is where things switch into slow motion, and I imagine Future Me bursting into the hair salon and tackling Rick to the ground. Unfortunately, I do not have the ability to travel through time, nor do I have the confidence or moxie required to tackle someone from the ground, especially when my past self is sitting right there.

So time kept marching its deadly battle, and Rick responded with, “How old is he?”

And I said, “He’s thirty.”

A mark of uncomfortable horribleness crossed Rick's face. Me, still unaware of what I had just happened, blissfully gazed at my partially metal head in the mirror.

“Did you say he’s thirty?” Rick again had paused, this time the little highlighting brush hung in the air.

“Mhm,” I nodded.

“And you have to watch him?”

At that point, I realized that there was some kind of misunderstanding. A normal person would have said something like, “Oh, no no no, my brother isn’t a baby. My brother has a baby!” That normal person and Rick would laugh and laugh and the two of them would become closer than ever, enjoying not only a pleasant haircut, but a lifetime of friendship with each other.

Not me. I figured out that Rick now thought that I had a “baby brother”  who is 30. Not only that, but I was tasked with caring for him. I took the path of least resistance.

“Yeah, it’s pretty stressful,” I said, trying to change my what the fuck am I saying face to an I have a mentally challenged 30-year-old-brother  face.

“I’ll bet. And he’s always been like that?”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “It’s just always been that way.”

I must have really sold it, because the look that came across Rick’s face said something like, We need to end this haircut now before this gets even weirder.

That is why the path of least resistance always works. Rick and I silently endured the quick chop-chop and snip-snip of my blank canvas hair, and I got ran out of there as fast as possible. Instead of calculating a tip, I just handed over all the money that I had at the time and I walked out, the tinkle of the welcome bell echoing in my wake.

I'm getting my hair cut again next week, finally, and wondering what kind of horrible situation I'll get myself into this time. Maybe I'll lie about cancer or another debilitating disease? Or maybe my parents will be getting a divorce? Or maybe they’re getting a divorce and they have cancer? Who knows!

The path of least resistance will always guide me.

Laura Dean
Boston


The primary focus of my OCD since late adolescence has been anxiety over sin, also known as "scrupulosity," which is generally categorized as a religious obsession. Some helpful Jesuits and Benedictines in college helped me to understand my condition.

Sometimes I would be anxious that I had an obligation to go back into the college chapel after Mass to make sure no crumbs from the Eucharistic bread had fallen to the floor. After an hour or so of various mental contortions, I might decide that no, I didn’t have to go look—but be immediately beset with worry that I might have consented to feeling jealousy against one a classmate that had stayed in the chapel to pray longer than I. Once I convinced myself that I had not committed a sin of envy, my fears focused on the possibility of the mortal sin of lust for some passing sexual image or thought. My fears were always about mortal sin, traditionally defined as turning away from God, thus risking eternity in the flames and loneliness of hell.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The AtlanticHe is the host of If Our Bodies Could Talk.

 
 
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