Forty for Forty – #11. Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Editor’s Note:   By now you know the drill. I turn 40 on June 6, 2012. As a little challenge to myself, I’m spending the next year writing 40 posts that say something about my life. This is #31 with plenty more to come.

The last time I did this, it was mid-October (my anniversary) and I was only at #32. I have 5 months left and 31 posts to go so it’s time to get busy writing or get busy dying (just a little something I learned at Shawshank). The fact that it’s the big 4-0 coming ’round the bend probably means I’ll get a lot from column A and a smidge from column B.

I have a bit of a theme developing over the next few posts. I think some of these will be humorous, some poignant and some a bit cautiously optimistic that with every day, everything in life gets better so long as you take the time to nurture and care for all those tiny important things. They say don’t sweat the little things but I think it’s helpful if you don’t ignore them either. Anyway, when I rewrote that piece about my final year in high school – specifically the pivotal moment when I – a solid B+ student who never saw one lick of trouble in his entire life suddenly found himself Public Enemy #1 – I took note that way back then, something broke inside me – if only for a short while. Of course, I didn’t realize that fact until a few years later when the benefit of age and hindsight allowed me to look back upon that goofy, awkward and completely gawkward kid I was and realize that all my worry was for naught. My kingdom for a time machine.

Well, if clichés are the order of the day, whatever didn’t kill me made me stronger – or certainly a little bit wiser.

If you haven’t read that post that directly feeds this one, I urge you to click this link and run through it. It’s a long one but hopefully entertaining and for the most part, completely spot on. There’s a little bit of embellishment for entertainment sake but if there’s one gift I’ve run with for the majority of my days, it’s a near photographic memory for the important points in my life. If you don’t want to fly through it, here’s a brief refresher.

In my Senior Year of High School, the long arm of the law up and bitch-slapped me when I found myself the unwitting accomplice of a buddy who decided to bray like a moron from the window of my other buddy’s speeding Mustang. Just some stupid kid stuff that spiraled way out of control and while it all worked out in the end, there was unseen damage that didn’t truly reveal itself until we had scored some distance from the main event. Now doesn’t that make you want to go read all about it.

That whole unfortunate episode occurred as my Senior Year was winding down. It was late March/early April of 1990; just as me and the entire Senior Class had all of our important grades in the books, our college prep in order and our acceptance letters signed on the dotted line. We all knew where we were headed; be it college or military or Barbizon. Those of us who didn’t want to be a model or just look like one knew we had a few months of free time before we would head off into the great wide open. And while my last few months were marred with that horrible hiccup, it was all resolved before Senior Week and Prom and Graduation – so the year ended exactly as predicted – on that stellar high note where the entire Senior Class seemingly comes together in unison. Those are the fateful, final days when clique walls crumble as we all bond fast and furious, realizing quite quickly that it didn’t matter what divergent paths our lives had taken over the years from K-12 – what mattered was wherever we set off from at that exact moment in time, we were all departing from the same common ground.

And it’s that simple, primal fact that is so important. So comforting.

So my Senior Year ended in a blissful blur. We toasted our formative years with a bittersweet cocktail; that sweet and salty mix of tears and laughter that pay proper tribute to a good time had by all. Summer 1990 came and went in a blink and we were off to find our way.

And it was at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst where I journeyed with what seemed like my entire 12th Grade Lunch table (Casa, Gobes, Bain, Buzz, Macka and Shaggy too); our Fellowship of the Class Ring having been forged and tested so many years prior. Freshman Year, I roomed with Gobes (full name removed to spare the innocent) while Casa bunked with Buzz one floor up and Macka paired up with Shaggy across the quad. It did the trick in shrinking that mammoth campus of nearly 20,000+ neatly down to size. That was a good group of guys to trek through the great unknown alongside.

The first few weeks of college were the usual blistering blur. Learning the lay of the land, making new friends, hitting keggers with old ones, grasping the nuances of Add/Drop, memorizing a mind-numbing array of acronyms and knowing that the DC would keep you alive so long as you kept your food choices limited to salad or cereal. The best of times!!!

UMASS was a huge place – for some a menacing metropolis that had them clicking their Reebok Pumps yearning for “No Place Like Home, No Place Like Home” while others, like me, saw nothing but a grand land of opportunity. For years, I had dreamed of going far away to college. I loved my home but I could not wait to see what else was out there. It helps that I’ve rarely had home-sickness. As a child, I used to spend many school holiday vacations visiting relatives far-and-away and as psyched as my parents of three children were to be down one less mouth to feed (for a week anyway), I was equally stoked to be away from it all. I can sleep anywhere and while I always love coming home again, I yearn to see new sights. It helps that UMASS, at 2 & 1/2 hours away, was just far enough away to ward off any unplanned drop-ins while making it nice and easy should the need arise for a nostalgic trip home or personal care-package delivery on-site.

Those first few weeks were exhilarating. I was in my glory. This was where I always wanted to be and after the slight madness of my Senior Year spring fiasco, this was exactly what my mind needed; a break from the norm and a fresh start at discovering where the road of my life may lead. There was just one slight complication; something in my wildest dreams I had never planned on. Somewhere, deep within, a little neural tempest was brewing, one that started gaining strength in the weeks before I had my little sit-down with the Clerk’s Magistrate. At the time, I felt it stir – my mind sent racing with worry that if things didn’t go well, all my careful college plans could be placed on hold. Of course, it was folly to worry so hard about such an innocent mistake but at seventeen even the smallest concern grows large when kept unchecked. So, when everything settled down and the sky didn’t fall that Spring as I had feared, I thought I was in the clear. Time to focus on graduation and prom and last goodbyes and that next potent stage in my life. The worry subsided, quieted to a dull-whisper but there in the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind – it lingered.

It was subdued but not silenced. Not for good, anyway. And sometime, around 3 or 4 weeks into my first month on campus – it resurfaced.

That’s the little secret I harbored for most of that first year; a freshman year plagued with high anxiety. What made it all so much worse is I never told anyone what was on my mind – not until this very moment – but then again, that’s the point of these posts. If I’m going to catalogue my life leading to 40, the lows have to stand with the highs. And this was a rare low.

It should be noted that I loved college. LOVED IT!!! Almost every aspect of it. It’s what I miss most in my life. While I certainly enjoy a charmed life – those early carefree days of simply discovering the world, and myself , and the glory of a keg stand – those days just flew so fast and free. But that freshman year almost derailed it all. The funny thing is – almost anyone I was close to that year would have no clue any of this was a problem. On the outside, I was the same happy-go-lucky guy.

But inside, I freaking worried about every stupid little thing. I even know when it all began – not the exact date or time but certainly the moment. I was walking to class, on one of those last-blast warm September mornings where you feel a slight Fall crisp in the air but still cling comfortably to your shorts and sandals, when I reached the crosswalk down the hill from my dorm. A transit bus had just picked up a group of students outside one dorm, ready to ferry them to the Southwest side of campus, when it stopped and the driver hit the horn. I looked up and saw it was a guy from my dorm just giving me a friendly wave.

Still, it was enough to give me a little jolt – to snap me out of my early morning haze and when I returned my startled gaze from the bus, I looked over at another dude heading my way and then suddenly, inexplicably, this wave of worry crashed over me. Something so unexplainable. The dude coming toward me certainly did not look threatening in any way – nor have I ever felt anxious around anyone (doing my best in life to keep a sunny demeanor and thus far removed from any of the fearsome types that prowl our planet). Nope, he just gave me a cursory “Top o’ the Mornin’ to ya’” smile – seemingly soaking in the same glorious day as I was – and then he and I were passing – two ships setting sail for different ports. But – in my mind – I just had this unexplained feeling of worry adrift on every errant thought. And from there it began to fester and I worried about everything.

EVERYTHING!!!

One day, I got a letter from the Campus Administration saying I needed to come down to see them concerning a question on my application. It turned out I hadn’t checked off some tiny, innocuous box but having received the notice at night, and unable to talk to them until the next morning, I was utterly convinced that I was being academically withdrawn. “SOMETHING MUST BE WRONG WITH MY FINANCIAL AID!!!” A few weeks later, as Fall was in full effect, I came down with the slightest little cough. “IT’S CANCER!!!” Then, I was playing pick-up basketball outside our dorm, when I felt a slight groin pull. “OH NO, IT’S TESTICULAR CANCER!!!” This went on all semester long and it was all I could do to keep a brave face when hanging with my dorm mates or taking notes in class. And at night, when the rest of the world was turned down for the evening, I thought if I don’t clamp a lid on this, I was going to go crazy.

It all came to a head during Winter Break. One night, I was watching the news when they spoke about a series of BB Gun sniper attacks on vehicles in the Rt. 3 Kingston stretch. Despite the fact that I have never owned nor fired a BB Gun, or lived anywhere within 25 miles of Kingston, or even had a vehicle of my own and was spending this entire break simply watching all the daytime TV I could stomach while counting the moments until I could get back to college – I was utterly convinced that the cops were going to assume it was me and collar me for yet another crime I also didn’t commit. And once that thought grabbed hold, I couldn’t shake it. It haunted my dreams.

That’s when I realized, something was broken that needed to be fixed.

I’m a firm proponent that people should see a psychologist or therapist when their brain needs mending or their thoughts settled out. If your heart skips a beat, you head to the docs. When you break your arm, they rush you to the ER. The brain is just another part of the machine and may also require a little tune-up from time-to-time just like the rest of our cogs. That said, I’ve never been to one and in the years since that early episode, I never really felt I needed to. But that year – 1990 – yeah, I probably should have gone and talked to someone. ANYONE!!! But, I think even in all my worry, what I worried most about was what people would think. I know now – that’s a bad way to live a life.

Instead, I devoted my spare time that Spring Semester to fixing myself. And the more I thought about it, the more I leaned on one simple but meaningful question. “What’s the worst thing that can happen to me in life?” The Answer: “I could die.” Seriously, nothing in life is worse than death so if it’s not that, then it can’t be that bad. Everything else is certainly solvable. Of course, there were those phantom health concerns that haunted me but I found I could exorcise those with a trip to the campus infirmary. No, what really bothered me were all of those minor mole hills that I would constantly raise to mountains.

So every time a new worry entered, I’d take my own personal litmus test; posing the question:   “Will this kill me?” And the answer, every single time, was an emphatic “No.” And with that, I would chase the worry away. Seems so simple but it worked. And now, years later, I can write about it and laugh about the simple, stupid things that sent my world into havoc. Of course, I also see a young guy who really should have spoken to someone and not kept it all bottled up.

Live and learn.

It took time – a lot of time and Q&A sessions with myself – but by mid-summer I found I could relax again. Truly relax. And so, that summer, as I counted the days until my sophomore session sprung to life, I hit the beach with my high school buddies and for the first time in a long time, I just enjoyed life. Enjoyed every single day for what it was – blessedly unpredictable. And every day, as I woke to some brand new experience – I grew a little wiser…

And a little bit stronger.