Saturday, March 8, 2014

Meet the Miracle Worry Busters

Karen* and Steve* were married for around a decade when they moved in across the street from me. They were in their mid-30s. Karen was a member of a non-denominational Christian group, she had been working for years part time towards a four-year nursing degree, and was in her final weeks of study.

Steve had retired early and extremely well, financially, from a large, national transportation corporation he had worked for starting straight out of high school. He was always helpful and very friendly towards others, as long as they didn’t know him well. If they did, he would be too busy worrying to pay any attention.

When we first met, Steve was cheerful and engaging. But after the first meeting, whenever I went over to see them, he would be sitting up in his easy chair, somewhat slumped, staring at TV. He’d never looked up and didn’t appear to know Karen had answered the door. He certainly was able to choose when to be responsive and when not to be; so, he wasn’t depressed.

Soon after they moved in, Karen talked with me in private. She told me that, except for when Steve went to the convenient store to get something, or when he suddenly came alive after seeing an acquaintance while they were grocery shopping, or when he was asleep, he worried constantly.

She didn’t say much to him because he was always in a fog, worrying. She said she didn’t know he was a chronic worrier until after their wedding reception, right after it. Because Steve chose his behavior, I suspected he was jealous of Karen and was obsessed with having to be in control. Ultimately, those who got to know them stayed away because of his strange behavior. However, I liked Karen and decided to hang in with her.

One afternoon on a rather hot day in May, I was visiting Karen. Steve was out to the convenience store. Our conversation turned to her upcoming graduation and, out of the blue, she told me that just before she enrolled in college, Steve said that as long as she didn't make any friends, he didn’t mind that she went to college. I thought, "How nice of him not to mind", and what he said verified my suspicions. I mentioned them to Karen. She suspected it, as well; but she said she had decided long ago that while she was in college, she was not going to cause a show down. "Besides," she added, "maybe a miracle will happen, and he'll work it out on his own."

Then she showed me the contents of a notebook, marked "Spanish"on the cover, that was on a bookshelf between Spanish textbooks she said she had from two years of courses she had taken early in college. She opened the notebook, showed me the contents, and explained that she wrote her career and her personal goals and their updates in Spanish.

I was perplexed, but she said it was an exercise in keeping her Spanish fluency; she read her goals out loud in Spanish when she woke up in the morning and just before going to sleep at night. Steve didn’t know Spanish and didn’t know she was reading her goals. He thought she was merely reciting Spanish in order to maintain her fluency because there was a large Spanish-speaking population in the region and, as a result, Spanish fluently was crucially-needed in hospitals. She added that her goals were written in Spanish because, otherwise, Steve would constantly haunt her over why he wasn’t mentioned in them. Knowing Steve, that made perfect sense to me.

She pointed to a few words in the notebook, and although I know Spanish, she told me what they meant: patience, serenity, perseverance, among others. She said she needed those attributes in order to remain calm around Steve’s constant worrying. She added that by reading them twice a day, she has them. And I could see it.

As she put the notebook back among the Spanish textbooks, I told her that, under her particular set of circumstances, writing her goals in Spanish was a brilliant move. She replied, "A girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do", and we had a good laugh.

As I was about to leave, Steve came in. He was grey. I gasped at the sight! Karen exclaimed, "You look like you’re going to have a heart attack!" He looked so bad, she said she was calling 9-1-1. He started to protest, saying the hot day got to him, but then he staggered over to his easy chair and collapsed into it.

The paramedics worked quickly and delivered Steve to the hospital alive. Karen called me later. The hospital said Steve did almost have a heart attack. The next evening, I went to the hospital with Karen and her twin sister Carol*. When we arrived at the door of Steve’s room, his TV was on and his roommate was being wheeled out; and from his bed, Steve was joking with him, and they were laughing as the roommate was taken out the door.

We entered the room and grabbed visitors’ chairs, but Steve didn’t greet us. He was staring at the TV. Like switching off a light, he went from being friendly with an acquaintance, to ignoring those who knew him, instantly assuming his worried stare.

Karen flashed her usual slight smile of confidence, and Carol appeared to know why. When the TV commercials came on, Karen took the remote and muted the sound; and although Steve continued to stare at the TV, she said to him in a calm manner, "By the time the commercials end, I will be finished saying what I came to say." That perked up my ears!

Then she told him the obvious: his constant worrying nearly caused him a heart attack. She said it was plain that he had control over his decision of when to act friendly and when to go into his fog, and she added that, should he choose to continue acting worried when he returned home, the dangerous state of health he brought on himself was not going to affect her; and all the while she spoke, his eyes never left the TV.

When she gave up the remote, the commercials were still running, and Steve was still staring at them. She stood up and, as if on cue, so did Carol. They headed for the door, and I jumped up and joined them. They didn’t say a word until we got into Karen’s car, and on the drive home, Karen reiterated what she said to Steve about choosing to continue worrying; and she said she wasn’t kidding about that. I believed her because she was more than less the serious type.

She said she would be surprised if he improved, even a slight amount; so she said that if that were to be the case, once his at-home recovery is over, since they didn’t have children, she was going to live with her parents. She said, "It seems backwards for a 35-year-old to return home, but I won’t be there long. With graduation behind me by then, I’ll have an RN position. I’m also thinking of filing for a legal separation. So, when I returned home from the hospital last night, I wrote down exactly what I’d like in a place of my own, and I read it along with my other goals last night and this morning."

Karen graduated, and things went from bad to worse with Steve. As soon as his recovery was completed, she moved in with her parents, obtained a nursing position, and was granted a legal separation which Steve fought to the hilt; but except for mutually-agreed funeral and burial arrangements and hospitalizations under the ‘next of kin’, but respectively-paid costs on all, the legal structure gave her autonomy. The house she and Steve had together was placed in his name only; he owned it and was responsible for it. And she could purchase real estate and other property without input from him.

After a few months at her parents’ home and after the separation, Karen found the house of her dreams in a nearby city, and in the course of a decade or so, she became a head nurse at a hospital close by her.

One day soon after she got her new place, we visited and got around to reminiscing. She said she found out through others after she went to her parents’ house, that Steve told everyone who would listen to him that he always knew she would leave him; he said he always worried about that, and he didn’t want it to happen. Yet, as she and I knew, his worry, like a magnet, brought to him exactly that, exactly what he said he didn’t want and, actually, he chased her off. It seems paradoxical, but it’s true.
Years later, Karen said to me, "Even after all this time, others tell me Steve keeps exclaiming that it's my duty as his wife to take care of him, and do nothing that would make him worry." We had a good laugh over that, and Karen added, "Those, like us, who actually know him, know he’s still trying to justify his behavior."

I asked her what she felt was the greatest help in reaching her goals. She said, "What I still do: read them twice a day because", she added, "a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do." As I smiled and nodded, I thought: Karen didn’t let anything break her stride, not even Steve’s chosen problem that he had deliberately foisted on her. Instead, she focused, through reading her goals morning and night, on the life she envisioned. For a good decade, she battled against someone’s deliberately-made ‘worry monster’, and she vanquished it in her life. Karen and her goals are miracle worry busters.

* names are not real

Tina Irene Williams

From ©WilliamsScript, the author's private collection of writings.
Copyright © Tina Irene Williams 2014 All Rights Reserved.
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