Separation: Who's Really Afraid?

08/15/2011 08:30 am ET | Updated Oct 15, 2011
  • Judith Acosta Author, 'The Next Osama'; Co-author, 'Verbal First Aid'

Recently I found out that a beloved niece -- one with whom I lived until she was about two years old -- was pregnant. And suddenly, everything I had learned to let go of as she became a toddler, then again as a school-age child, then a teenager, then a young adult and then as a married woman, had flown out the window. I had grabbed hold of that life-long chain of release -- release and re-release -- pulled it back to me, and rolled it into a big knot.

Then, I found out that she (in her last trimester) and her husband were going to visit the wild, wonderful world of Mickey Mouse in the height of summer.

Every adrenal-driven, hormone-based horror came rushing out like a hot flash. I thought of every ride that could make her sick, every long drive that could give her a blood clot, every soda that would push her blood sugar into a snit. What if X and what if Y? And did you talk to your doctor? And how will you ever be able to stand in line?

I was my own worst nightmare, a caricature of the anxious stunt-mom, the stuff I have warned my sister about far, far too many times for both her and my own liking.

And even writing this to you, I am embarrassed.

I'm supposed to know better. This is generally the sort of thing I teach to parents -- how to generate a sense of authority, safety and assurance and then transfer that to their children or loved ones. I'm supposed to be the maven of ,verbal first aid not "the grand ol' mama of woe and oh no."

But as I look back on it -- and how I had to retrace my steps, backpedal and make it right with my niece (first with an apology and then with some true correction) -- I see it more as a gift. As hard as it is to let go of the people we love, it is that easy to grab them right back. Control is like a tether ball. It may look like you've slapped it past the horizon, but then there it comes around and slams you upside the head.

What I've learned is that letting go of someone I love, so that she may properly live her own life, is an ongoing struggle -- at least for people like me whose natural tendency is to fret. For others who are more like my husband, it is a grace -- a way of walking and breathing in the world.

So I went back to basics.

As she talked about all the things she was going to do, I went through the list I teach but forgot to practice:

1. Breathe! I honestly forget to breathe more times than I care to admit. It's a wonder I'm not perpetually cyanotic.

2. Center! This word has a multiple meaning for me. In one obvious sense it means to get centered physically in my own body. This is the only way to manage an unreasonable anxiety, even though everything about anxiety pushes us in the other direction ... to leave our bodies. (If it's going to feel like this, I'm outta here!)

The other thing it represents for me is a spiritual center. I have to remember -- or to be more accurate -- actively remind myself by reading something, praying or talking to someone who knows better than I do, about who I really am, who she really is and what our ultimate destinations are. Even though I love her as if she were my own child, she is far, far more than that, and has her own purpose in life. She is God's child, just as I am. She has never belonged to me (or anyone else for that matter) even though at times it may feel like that.

3. The ABCs of verbal first aid with children and adults. Even though this was not a "crisis" (at least not for anyone but myself), it was a good opportunity for me to remember what makes for truly therapeutic communication: authority, believability and compassion.

Usually these qualities are important to cultivate when someone is in shock or has had a traumatic or frightening experience, so that we can lead them towards health or healing. In our case, it was oddly reversed. I was the one who, with my fear, was creating a traumatic or frightening experience where none did nor needed to exist.

To reverse it, I had to go back to what was the essence of any good parent or healer relationship: The ability to be a leader (to help her to move forward without the unnecessary baggage of anxiety), to be believable in my assertions (not a fear-monger) and to be understanding. She was tired and desperately wanted a vacation. If she wanted to see Donald Duck and be a little girl for a week, who was I to judge? And where did I come off assuming that she didn't have enough sense to get out of the sun or find a chair in which to rest her weary legs? I had messed up on all counts.

4. Rapport. In this case, because I was such a worry wart, I had to re-establish what I once had, but rapidly lost because my fear had begun to affect her. The more fear I had, the more I lost the rapport we had cultivated over so many years. Obviously it was not "lost" in the sense of "gone forever," but it was tenuous in the moment. With every "what if" she had to defend not only her status as an adult or her decisions, but her sense of well-being. The more afraid I was, the more she really had to resist me.

I remember quite a while ago when I was undergoing these quick twists and turns with my parents, how much their fear had more than annoyed me, it had angered me. As the years passed, I realized why: It resonated with me. If they were afraid (and if secretly, I was too), then there must have been something to be afraid of. I didn't want to be afraid. It made me feel helpless rather than empowered and alive. And being pervasively (as opposed to realistically) fearful never gave me a single useful tool in my life.

So, this time, I was lucky. Not too much water or wasted emotional energy had flowed under the bridge before I caught it. I was able to recapitulate in short order and she, gracefully, laughed at her aunt once again.

When, inevitably, I imagine her walking across miles of parking lots and waiting in long lines in sweltering heat to get through the Pearly Gates of Disney, I will instead take a breath, sit back, remind myself of the basics and think of her as a brave and happy young woman with a baby on the way, running up to Cinderella and smiling from ear to ear.