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Jewish Journal

What Me, Worry?

by Teresa Strasser

April 25, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Let's not tell grandma.

That's what my mom said after I fractured my elbow in third grade and had to spend the summer in a cast. "Why?" I wondered.

"Because she'll worry."

"About what? That I'll break my arm? It's already broken," I remember saying. Today, as I write this, a copy of "Stop Obsessing" on my desk and a third appointment with an anxiety-management specialist on my calendar, I couldn't understand more.

Like grandma's pearls, handed down and worn in, I've inherited an opera-length strand of worries. I couldn't tell grandma I broke my arm because that would start an endless anxiety spiral. The fact that I broke my arm would mean that my school was unsafe, that perhaps my bones were brittle, that my mother was so inept at taking care of me I was lucky to have any limbs left at all. When you're a worrier, the leap from one broken bone to the apocalypse isn't very far.

It's one thing to worry about a child with a broken bone, but it's another thing to worry about nothing and everything until you suddenly realize you've had a stomachache for the last 14 years.

If I had a scrapbook of worries, I could turn to page one and show you my first truly irrational worry, the one that really set the tone for the rest of my life. I wasn't allowed to eat candy as a kid, but I somehow finagled the acquisition of a huge jawbreaker, white with colored speckles, that I hid under my pillow (I know, very well that chubby kid in "Monster's Ball"). I would eat a little of the jawbreaker before bed every night and then tuck it in -- nighty-night -- right back under the pillow. Instead of dozing off to sleep I would begin to wonder, what if the dentist can tell that I've been eating sugar? What if he tells my mom? What if she discovers I've been lying to her all this time and that it would really be better if she dropped me off downtown so I could live in a "squat" with kids named "Squeeky" and "Sad Eyes?"

When the jawbreaker was gone, I found other worries to chew on. In high school, it was mainly stuff like, what if people are talking about me behind my back? What if my grandpa dies before the thank-you note for my $25 birthday check gets there? What if I run into one of my teachers in the grocery store and it's really awkward?

Good idea I chose to go into show business, a field rife with stability.

These days, most worry spirals go like this: I didn't get that job/manager/part, which means I may have no talent, which means soon everyone will notice that I'm a fraud, which means I'll be an outcast, which means I'll end up homeless, scouring the gutter for a cigarette butt to smoke before "lights out" at the shelter. You see what I mean about the spiral? What starts out a quasi-reasonable worry picks up steam, picks up speed and ends up on the fast track to the land of guzzling Pepto.

I'm making it sound worse than it is. At least now I know I'm being Worry Girl, and I can usually stop myself from going down a thought path that ends with me and a shopping cart full of empty cans.

Months go by, and I'm fine. I'm fine until something comes along like the show I'm doing this weekend at the University of Judaism. I'm only speaking for 35 minutes; I've taken showers longer than that. Still, there have been days the panic is so bad I have to get in bed and take a nap at 3 p.m., or cry for two hours, or seriously plot ways to get out of the gig. When it gets bad, I write in my journal about every crazy thing I think could go wrong, a little trick I picked up from "Stop Obsessing."

I'm sure it's going to be fine. It always is. If you come, you might see a meltdown but it's way more likely you'll see a nice little talk (and I understand they're throwing in martinis, too).

The question is this: why worry? If things usually turn out just fine, or at least not nearly as disastrous as I might fantasize, what's the point of putting myself through the fear spirals at all? Why not just sit back with some incense and let life unfold?

To me, that's like asking why I have brown hair? Because I just do. Because it's something I inherited from my "can't handle a broken bone" grandmother and my "will call the California Highway Patrol to see if there have been any fatalities if you're 20 minutes late" mother. My kids will probably bite their nails before they can talk, and frankly, though I don't even have a boyfriend at the moment, I'm worried about those kids already.


Teresa Strasser will be appearing in "The Teresa Monologues," April 28 at the University of Judaism. For tickets and information, call (310) 440-1246.

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