Mama’s Boy: The Anxious Are Poor Comfort for the Anxious

Mamma’s gonna make all of your nightmares come true
Mamma’s gonna put all of her fears into you
Mamma’s gonna keep you right here, under her wing
She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sing

“Mother,” Pink Floyd

I’d rather walk all the way home right now than to spend one more second in this place
I’m exactly like you Valentine, just come outside and leave with me

“Day I Die,” The National

Like my life, my anxiety and hypochondria began with my mother; she and I have shared for over 50 years now a morbid fear of her death.

Yesterday morning, I answered my phone despite no ID for the number. The voice on the other end was the doctor who has been treating my mother since she was admitted to the hospital, again, over the weekend while I was out of town.

Since my mother’s stroke in early June of this year, she has experienced a seemingly endless series of health issue, and worst of all, her lifelong battle with anxiety has nearly enveloped her—now a much reduced person with almost no ability to communicate.

The doctor’s message: My mother likely has lung cancer.

This is the sort of message people confront all the time, but of course, for each of us, these moments are individual. I finished the phone call calmly, and then, I cried one hard burst of sadness.

That crying had been waiting since the day before when I visited her. A week or so ago, my mother had a brief few days of near calmness and much improved talking.

Her franticness and wild-eyed mumbling have been nearly unbearable over the past five months; the anxious are poor comfort for the anxious—especially, I think, when there is some intimacy between them.

I have had to ration my time with my mother because everything about her depletes my batteries—until I am on the verge of tears, until I have to convince myself not to run—I mean run—as far as possible from this reduced woman buried under her anxiety and inadequate brain.

For the anxious, for the hypochondriacs, bad news comes in a perverse duality—the terror of the news laced with the relief of the news, always, always expected, and almost never true.

My middle nephew and I visited her yesterday after a second procedure to relieve her of fluid on her lungs, she was asleep, and never woke fully so I am not sure if she knows we were there.

The doctor said that my mother wasn’t told the expected diagnosis that hasn’t been medically confirmed, but the “likely” is a technicality.

We have all agreed my mother’s anxiety is simply too much for her, this weight of the world is too much already without adding what I imagine is her greatest life’s fear and expectation, cancer.


I did not have a name for it until I was 38, but my anxiety, in retrospect, began with my mother—certainly in some combination of genetics and the environment of a home including her pervasive anxiety.

As a child, I lay in bed unable to sleep as I fretted about my mother dying. The first time occurred when I was probably no more than 5 or 6, and my mother went into the hospital to have a lump removed from her breast.

It was benign, but the entire experience introduced me to the mortality of my parents and the fear I saw in my father’s face, a man who had always seemed unable of such fear.

Over the next fifty or so years, few moments of my life have been absent some impending illness related to my mother.

Before my father died this summer, just a couple weeks after my mother’s stroke, he had been in declining health for a long time. But when I talked to him on the phone—as he had been doing for decades—he worried aloud about my mother’s health.

She was always, always not doing well.

Any time I visited, especially in the last months, however, my father was visibly a very sick man, and my mother remained relatively vibrant.

Theses interactions with my parents were preparation for the new world of my father deceased and my mother reduced, practice with interactions that drain me to the point that I am simply no use to anyone.

In that state, of course, I begin a cycle of self-loathing, wishing I could rise above this and knowing there is really nothing I can do except steel myself against the exhaustion and wait it out.

Silence and disassociation as defense mechanisms are profoundly inadequate.


My last class before the Thanksgiving break asked what I was doing for the holiday. When I told them I hate Thanksgiving, I hate holidays, they wanted to know what I do like.

I routinely exaggerate my professor persona with students, but that persona remains grounded in who I really am. I do hate all holidays—everything about holidays instills suffering in those who are anxious, introverts.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are uniquely awful since they fall in the contracting of daylight leading to the winter solstice.

The human condition also includes by necessity that the deaths of people we love too often fall on or near holidays, dark clouds for space intended to be vacations from the weight of living.

It is Thanksgiving and I am haunted by my mother’s exhaustion, her frailty.

I find her suffering unbearable because I am disturbingly aware that no one should suffer this way.

I am disturbingly aware that many people throughout history and now do suffer this way—although we have the capacity for reducing human suffering.

Anxiety. Hyperawareness about everything. I mean. Every. Thing.

My middle nephew and I have coordinated when we will visit my mother today around the expectations of Thanksgiving.

It is mid-morning. I begin to steel myself for the day of Thanksgiving with family.

I do not want to talk, especially about my mother.

I do not want to be anywhere I have to be.

I will be in a continuous conversation with myself, trying not to run—I mean run—as far as possible from all of this.