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Nerve Pills

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“Nerve pills”. That’s what Mammaw took when I was a child. She would comment on needing one, or having taken one, the same way one might comment on aspirin or an antacid. I didn’t know what “nerve pills” were, but I never much wondered, either. I suppose if I had to pin down my childish beliefs on the matter, I’d say I thought nerve pills were something you took when you got old.

Another matter-of-fact thing I knew about Mammaw: She worried. A LOT. About everything. About me, in particular. I was the only grandchild, and she lived next door to us. That meant she knew all of my comings and goings, and if anything was out of the ordinary, she was twice as worried, twice as fast, as my mother ever was. I suppose you would say Mammaw was “high strung”, though as a child I knew nothing more of that than I did of nerve pills.

She passed a lot of her worries along to me when I was young. Mammaw was a master of the worst-case scenario. She distrusted most everyone, and never felt safe. I remember her teaching me when I was barely old enough to reach the handle of the shopping cart that I should put my purse in it, then hook my arm through the strap and hold onto the cart. That way no one could steal my purse, full of gum and lip balm. She was also the only house in the neighborhood that kept her front door locked, at least until I got old enough to absorb enough paranoia to begin locking ours myself.

The older I got, the worse my worries and fears got. I began to develop deep-seated anxieties about a number of unavoidable life situations. One of the earliest was the inability to feel safe. Just like Mammaw, I worried. I locked every door I could lock, I trusted virtually no one. Every time I walked down the street, I considered the possibility I could get mugged and would hold onto my purse a little tighter.

Eventually, my anxiety became too much to handle on my own, so I sought help. Somewhere along the way, I had realized what Mammaw’s “nerve pills” were, and what she meant when she said she “had nerves”, so it came as quite a shock to me when she prickled at the mention of seeing a doctor for help. I questioned her about her resistance to the idea and, in her stubborn way, she insisted there was nothing wrong with me, and that I certainly didn’t need pills. Most times, at that point in the discussion I let things go. Once she dug in stubbornly, the conversation was only going to go downhill. But this one, I couldn’t just let it go. I asked the obvious, why medication was okay for her, but not me.

She went from prickling to downright shouting. She told me, in no uncertain terms, that she did not have an anxiety problem and she was not on anxiety medication. She simply had nerves and took nerve pills. I tried explaining to her that they were one and the same, but realized quite quickly it was a lost cause. I understood she grew up in a different time, in a time where you couldn’t accept mental illness. Yours or anyone else’s. In retrospect, I should have been more surprised she had gotten help at all, whether she called it “nerves” or anything else. Secondarily, I should hate to think how difficult life would have been for her if she hadn’t.

Mammaw did soften around the edges in relation to my anxiety issues. She was loathed to admit there could possibly be anything wrong with her perfect grandbaby, but we talked every day, about everything, and she knew I was struggling. She was never willing to admit that she herself had an anxiety problem, but she eventually came to terms with mine and my need for medication. She was, perhaps, the one who could understand best, as I could understand her best. We both knew the weight of the burden of worry when anxiety has taken hold in your life.

She passed away a little over six months ago. Once in a while, in moments alone, I would try to comprehend the magnitude of loss I would feel when she was gone. I could only bear to think about it briefly, before shaking it off and thinking about something else, anything else. But on September 25th, 2015, I was faced with the unthinkable. My beloved Mammaw was gone.

Things between Mammaw and I were not always easy. Some days I would get so frustrated with her worrying, always needing to know where I was, or what I was doing. I would make a valiant effort to shove my irritation down, to keep it from showing. I wasn’t always successful. I frequently reminded myself that her nagging and nitpicking were the only way she knew to deal with the anxiety and worry she faced every day.

Every morning started with a phone call to Mammaw. As sure as the dawn would come, my phone would ring. Some mornings I would wake up just to tell her I was okay, and then go back to sleep. Some mornings I would oversleep, and then she would shame me for having worried her. The one thing I could be sure of, though, was that the day would always start out with Mammaw. Until it didn’t. One of the things that caught me most off guard when she passed was how lonely it would feel when Mammaw wasn’t worrying anymore...

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