Just a week ago, I was fairly certain that my one-time use of a Neti pot to clear my sinuses of a persistent, rage-inducing stuffy nose had infected me with a brain-eating amoeba.
Last Tuesday I told my husband, Andrew, that I would probably be gone in about twelve days. Before I broke the news to him, I’d made a certain kind of uneasy peace with my death. The thought that my youngest daughter, Elizabeth, would never remember the way I could get her to giggle, or that Claire, our four-year-old, would go through life with only the briefest memories of our rich life together brought me considerable grief. I felt sad, too, that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to walk through life with Andrew — who, to his credit, listened solemnly and without the least hint of ridicule to my amoeba-based fears — and that we wouldn’t be able to retire together. I felt bad that he would be saddled with single fatherhood for a while, and then I felt envious of whoever might take my place once he’d mourned his loss.
I also worried that Andrew would forget to put coats on our children on chilly but not unbearably cold days, and that they would all be destined to a life of poor nutrition in the form of Ruffles Cheddar and Sour Cream potato chips, mac and cheese, frozen pizza, and other blandly colored dishes like, most notably, my better half’s “Potato Surprise.” I imagined my husband, in his grief, relinquishing our Vitamix — a household appliance that has brought me an immeasurable amount of joy — pretty much ensuring that no one left in the wake of my devastatingly quick and tragic death would ever eat spinach again.
At one point in the week, I began to try to imagine who would come to my funeral, but I stopped when that felt a little too self-indulgent.
They were a dark few days.
The Neti pot is a brilliant Eastern invention, intended for sinus relief, dating back thousands of years. Western doctors have deemed it safe and effective, but the catch is that users, no matter how desperate for their cold symptoms to dissipate, are advised to boil the water and allow it to cool before using it. Otherwise, there is a (very) small chance that one may fall victim to N. fowleri, an amoeba with the capacity to kill.
In late 2011, two Louisianans died after using the Neti pot with unboiled tap water. This I found out quite accidentally when searching the internet for details on the little packets of salt solution that make the Neti pot such a magical thing. It was just the information I needed to slip over the edge of reality and into the deep.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been gripped by this sort of crazy, imaginative anxiety. At least half of those instances followed 9/11 — and then, I was in good company. Now I tend to fall victim to these bouts of irrational thinking when I least expect it. With two small children and one soon on the way, life is full, and the immediacy of my little people’s boo-boos and disciplinary challenges trumps most of my own worries, real or imagined.
But I should know by now that when life is at its busiest, when change is on the horizon, or when I face any big picture-future uncertainties, I’d better not search for anything on the internet other than, say, tasteful unicorn birthday party plates.
Over the years, I’ve learned to protect myself from the barrage of bad news online and on television. I stay away from detailed stories on everything from potential terror weapons to abducted children, and I have deep disdain for television shows that in any way dramatize tragedy. What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which basically outlines anything that could go wrong in pregnancy, has never been, and never will be, on my bedside table. While it is true that that revered spot beside my cup of tea is reserved for books that have nothing to do with the raising of children, it is also equally true that I know what my imagination can do with a little too much of the wrong kind of clarity.
On the other side of anxiety, I always feel a mixture of amusement and renewed lucidity, secured by a corrected sense of what is and is not reality, grateful that I can see the truth plainly. Unlike my husband, who gives me incredible grace in this area, I regard the part of my brain that believes in the anxious and ridiculous with impatience and disdain. As a writer, I am grateful for my imagination, but when my anxiety is at its worst, I wish for the rational, calculating mind of an accountant or a doctor. When presented with people who have endured real strife, danger, or loss, I feel tremendous guilt.
This makes my journey with anxiety not only a search for the kind of truth that acknowledges the bad and hopes for the good, but also a search for patient self-acceptance and understanding, especially when I find myself in the grips of a story I can’t seem to get myself out of.
During a sermon at Duke University in 2008, Dr. Sam Wells spoke about loving oneself as fulfillment of Jesus’ call to love our neighbors. Rather than feeling plagued with guilt for what is left undone, Wells advised his listeners to do something that might be considered controversial. He said, “When you hear the words ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ swap the words around and say, ‘Love yourself as your neighbor.’ In other words, regard yourself as the first among all the neighbors God calls you to love.”
When I think of my anxiety and hear the whisperings of ridicule’s mean voice, I’m reminded of this, and encouraged. If a friend confessed to me that she’d spent a week imagining how her family would go on without her because she’d fully convinced herself of having a crazily implausible illness, I would be much kinder to her than I am to myself.
I did not, of course, die of N. fowleri, the brain-eating amoeba, so for the foreseeable future, my appropriately dressed children will continue to receive key nutrients in the form of superbly blended smoothies, my husband will not take another wife, and my friends will not have to take time out of their busy schedules to eulogize me — sweet relief on the other side of anxiety.
When Towles Kintz is not portraying herself in implausibly dire scenarios, she keeps a blog at www.towleskintz.wordpress.com. She lives and works in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, two daughters, and a dog.